The 2014 season was tough sledding for Idaho. With the Vandal offense ratcheting up productivity on the offensive side of the ball behind redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Linehan, attention focused on early season defensive struggles. Although Idaho was bringing back a solid group of upper classmen on the defensive front, the team struggled to make stops. By seasons end they were giving up an average of 37.3 points per game, 462 yards to opponents, and a stunning 6.9 yards per play.
The spotlight was focused on Idaho’s defensive backfield which gave up a staggering 9.5 yards per attempt while compiling a pass defense efficiency of 159.7 for the year; last in the Sun Belt.
But with the off-season comes a chance to rebuild an Idaho defense that in the recent past sent a safety to the NFL (Shiloh Keo) and had a cornerback (Stanley Franks) that led the NCAA in interceptions per game (.75) enroute to becoming a First Team All-WAC selection and being named to the Bronco Nagurski Watch List.
The Vandals signed four junior college defensive backs to National Letters of Intent in December, all of whom will be expecting to make an immediate impact this fall. Among them is Mesa Community College speedster D.J. Hampton, a student of the game who is in for spring with his eyes trained on turning Idaho’s fortunes around.
THE RECRUITING PROCESS for Hampton by the University of Idaho began this last fall. But really this seed was planted years ago, in the relationship that Idaho coach Bryce Erickson developed with the Mesa Community College coaching staff and Defensive Coordinator / Defensive Backs coach Chenelle Jones. Before Hampton ever formally met the UI coaching staff, Erickson and crew were seeing what they liked in the 5-foot-10 athlete, built on the trusted words of the Mesa coaching staff and video of Hampton's performance.
With their minds made up, Idaho extended an offer to Hampton.
“It was late in our season,” Hampton told GoVandals.net recently. “Coach Jones asked me if I had received a call from Coach Erickson yet. I said no, and then about a week later they called me and they offered me on the spot. That was my first time talking to them, and they offered me on the spot.”
The Vandals weren’t the only program on Hampton’s trail. “Other schools were interested in me,” Hampton said, “but Idaho showed the most interest. UTEP talked to me but they didn’t offer. I talked to Utah State and BYU – BYU is the other school that showed heavy interest. I talked to BYU a lot.”
But in the end it was his trip to UI on December 5th where he gained an appreciation for the atmosphere in Moscow that sealed the deal. Hosted by Vandal wide receiver Deon Watson, Hampton was joined by several other JC recruits to the Moscow campus that weekend.
“We were in the locker room and they were letting us try on jerseys,” Hampton recalled. “I had my dad take pictures with me and Coach Erickson and Coach Ambrose, and right after he snapped the pictures I said ‘I’m a Vandal now.’ Coach Erickson was like ‘What was that,’ and I yelled it out loud so everyone in the locker room could hear it -- that’s how it went. We got another commitment right after that too, Leonard Hazewood the D-end.
“It was a pretty hyped up atmosphere.”
And for good reason. Hampton was on campus with two other DB recruits in Isaiah Taylor and Kendrick Trotter. Combined with fellow signee Willie Fletcher, this is the biggest haul of junior college defensive backs Idaho has signed in years.
The urgency to fortify this unit heading into 2015 was clearly an emphasis.
A QUICK LOOK AT HAMPTON’S VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS sheds some light on the athlete Idaho recruited. He’s versatile enough to play corner, nickel or safety, and Idaho has said they’ll give him a look at multiple positions in the defensive backfield.
“I’m open to playing all positions,” Hampton said about his intent to play this fall. “I played a little safety at Mesa, but mainly corner. If I was going to make a preference, I’d pick safety. But I’m open to all of them. DB is the best position -- I love playing the game.”
Learning a new scheme isn’t a problem for the junior-to-be with three years to play two either. He pointed out that Idaho tends to run with five defensive backs, a little different than the defensive schemes he ran at Mesa and in high school. Asked to make a call on his preference for man or zone coverage, Hampton was open to all. “It doesn’t matter what coverage, whether it’s man or zone. I like to mix it up and confuse the quarterback. But if I had to pick one, I’d go with press-man. But playing zone, like cover two, if a tightend or receiver is on an out route I like to blow them up.”
And there is a good reason why he is open to them all. A student of the game, Hampton knows the value of watching film and describes pre-game preparation as one of his strengths. “I like to watch film; that’s a necessity. I don’t feel like I could go into a game without watching film, because I feel more confident about what I’m about to do with them and the scheme we’re bringing in. From there I can use my athleticism and trust my speed.”
Timed at 4.41 in the forty, speed and endurance isn’t a problem for Hampton. A track standout at Raymond S. Kellis High School where his track team took the Division II State Championship his senior year, his 4x100 team (he ran the second leg) won state, and he made it to the podium in the 200m finals while also making it to the 100m finals (personal best of 10.96 in the 100 as a senior).
Armed with playing experience and an understanding of pre-game preparation, what does he need to work on the most to hone his game and to compete at the FBS level?
“I can work on everything -- I want to be the best I can be.”