Hamlin makes strong first impression

SAN ANTONIO - Rookie Dallas Cowboys safety Mike Hamlin smiled sheepishly when he was informed what head coach Wade Phillips said about him in a recent press conference.

One week into the Cowboys' training camp at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Phillips was asked about several rookies on the defensive side of the ball. The first player he brought up by name was Hamlin, a fifth-round pick out of Clemson.

Phillips said he was impressed by Hamlin's knack for being around the ball, and for making interceptions when the ball headed his way. The Dallas head coach even went as far to say Hamlin's hands "spectacular" and "Everson Walls-type hands."

Being compared to Walls — the team's all-time leader in interceptions in a single season after he snagged 11 in 1981, and second on the team list for interceptions in his career with 44 — made Hamlin look at the ground, beaming with pride.

"I feel like I've done a pretty good job so far," he said. "The last two days, I feel like I've started to cheat up a little bit on my drops. I've got some small stuff I'm real picky about, but so far I'm doing a pretty good job. But it's a good thing that the head coach is talking good about me."

To say the least.

After a little over a week of training camp, no rookie is assured of making the roster, but Hamlin certainly is catching the attention of coaches and teammates. In addition to Phillips, veteran cornerback Terence Newman noticed the Lamar, S.C., native during the team's OTAs, naming Hamlin when asked which of the rookies trying to crack the Dallas secondary impressed him the most.

Despite the accolades, Hamlin knows he is far from a finished product, or even ready to challenge for one of the starting safety spots. Ken Hamlin (no relation) is locked in as the starter at free safety, while free agent signee Gerald Sensabaugh is expected to take over at strong safety, the position at which Mike Hamlin will serve as a reserve this season.

"Just studying the playbook and learning what's going on, and the terminology," he said when asked to name the most significant transition between the college and pro game. "The only really big thing is communication — everybody's got to be on the same page. One mistake can get you beat, and the thing about the secondary is we're the last line of defense.

"The difference is the words they use to describe things, the names for everything. Everybody's got pretty much the same concepts, but when you start spitting out words, you've got to have the right words, you've got to change the words over from what you called everything before."


"We were always out in the sun [at Clemson] — the only time we went indoors was when there was lightning outside," he said. "It's very easy [training in Alamodome] — I love it. I call the boys back at Clemson and tell them about it all the time. They're outside, in the sun, on turf, and I'm indoors on turf in an air-conditioned place, so this is a great feeling."
While he said he is getting better at the new language, he admitted that the learning process is far from over, and that he sometimes finds himself hearing a defensive call and then translating it in his head to the language used at Clemson, where he started a school-record 43 of 48 career games, collected 326 tackles and finished third in school history with 14 career interceptions.

"Yeah, I do," he said. "It will hit me, at times, but every time we break out I try to go through the calls and the checks, and use the language we have here."

Hamlin has the benefit of learning from a pair of veterans with a thorough knowledge of the team's defensive system, and takes advantage by picking their brains whenever possible.

"I bug him every day," he said of Ken Hamlin, whom Phillips calls "the quarterback of our defensive secondary.

"Every time I do something wrong, or feel like I do something wrong, I'll go up and ask him questions about how we play certain routes, or what kinds of changes he would make, or if in the middle of the play the quarterback scrambles, what do we yell out? Things like that."

Sensabaugh, like Hamlin, is in his first training camp with the Cowboys, but he has the advantage of having played for current Dallas defensive coordinator Dave Campo when the two were together in Jacksonville. Because of that, Hamlin doesn't see Sensabaugh as a newcomer at all.

"He pretty much knows everything that's going on," Hamlin said. "He played with Coach Campo in Jacksonville, so he's got a good idea how Coach Campo runs a defense. So if he sees something I'm doing wrong, he'll point it out to me. Like today, I made a busted call in a dime, and he just came up to me and told me that in that dime, we play it like a Cover-2 — so just small stuff like that."

Hamlin said being an NFL rookie isn't exactly like being a college freshman, in terms of the treatment received from older players.

"It's not that bad at all," he said. "I thought it was going to be a little rougher, but it's really not that bad. They expect you to do things like, if you go get a drink, bring (them) something back, or whatever you go do, you've got to make sure they don't want anything. Or if I get a drink and get back to the room and they want a drink, I've got to give it to them. Things like that. It's not bad — they treat you well here. It's fun."

The bigger difference he enjoys is the fact that his first summer of workouts with his new team is indoors — a far cry from the sweltering South Carolina sun under which he practiced during two-a-days at Clemson.

"We were always out in the sun [at Clemson] — the only time we went indoors was when there was lightning outside," he said. "It's very easy [training in Alamodome] — I love it. I call the boys back at Clemson and tell them about it all the time. They're outside, in the sun, on turf, and I'm indoors on turf in an air-conditioned place, so this is a great feeling."


Hamlin said he is playing on all special teams so far in camp, "and I'm enjoying it. They've got me up front on the kickoff return team, so I've got to get a little bigger to take on some blockers."
But while the accommodations might be a little more tolerable under the dome, Hamlin is anything but complacent. Instead, he virtually lives with his playbook, and knows that in addition to his defensive assignments, he must show he can contribute on special teams to ensure he makes it through Sept. 5, when NFL teams must trim their roster to the 53 they will carry into the regular season.

Hamlin said he is playing on all special teams so far in camp, "and I'm enjoying it. They've got me up front on the kickoff return team, so I've got to get a little bigger to take on some blockers. I do it on my own with Terence Newman and (wide receiver) Sam Hurd — those guys kind of take me up under their wing, and show me the ropes, show me how to work out like pros work out."

Hamlin said that while Campo and safeties coach Brett Maxie demand elite effort and concentration from rookies on defensive assignment, they both have encouraged Hamlin and the other rookies to play on as many special teams as possible, in an effort to remind the coaching staff how valuable they are and how many diverse roles they can fill.

"(Campo) stresses special teams with all of the rookies — him and Coach Maxie," Hamlin said. "They both say ‘try and get on every special team you can. If kickoff return is going, and you're not on kickoff return, try and get on the scout team kickoff team, just so you can show yourself.'"

Hamlin was one of three defensive backs drafted in April by the Cowboys, and said that in addition to his obvious desire to make the roster, he hopes fellow safety DeAngelo Smith and cornerback Mike Mickens also stick around into September.

"Hopefully all of us (rookie defensive backs make the team)," he said. "We're all working hard, so hopefully we can make it real hard for the coaches to get rid of any of us."

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