It's hard to argue against Victor Hampton as the 2013 team's best interview. Charismatic, silver-tongued, and undeniably operating with a dash of arrogance that should come in handy when playing under the hot lights of NFL stadia. Of course, this makeup isn't atypical of defensive backs, those pesky ballhawks who crave the spotlight as much as any defensive player and most offensive players. We're but a year removed from the histrionics of DJ Swearinger, whose fiery brand of leadership was complemented by his intense style of play and peerless trashtalk acumen—36 collected conduct-related penalty flags like scalps during his senior campaign. Hampton stepped with aplomb (not to mention an aura of relative reserve) into the void created by DJ's departure. His path to that role of swag-inherent was circuitous, and for a period veered as if it might dissipate. But Vic straightened up, flew right, and now finds himself at the precipice of a career in the NFL.
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Perhaps, with Hampton, it was an inability to harness his bravado that impeded his progress in the early going. That he would complete a collegiate career at a high level initially seemed as unlikely as, say, Auburn's recent run at a national title. Hampton's troubles were well-documented: booted from one high school team, arrested for underaged drinking on another. Initially a Florida commit, Hampton would reopen his recruitment and eventually land with the Gamecocks. He stood among the most celebrated recruits in a class top-heavy with paragons of good behavior like Marcus Lattimore, Connor Shaw and Ace Sanders. It was clear that South Carolina's coaches were after high-character recruits, and despite his now-validated potential, 2010's Victor Hampton was certainly a risk. The Gamecocks had successfully recruited Hampton, but would for some time grapple with the question of whether he was worth recruiting in the first place.
Hampton redshirted during the 2010 season. Six months later, after missing 2011's spring practice with academic issues, he was dismissed.
The nature of Hampton's transgressions is still unclear, but it seemed 4-star recruit's legacy would be that of a risk that didn't pay off. But Steve Spurrier, in the midst of criticism regarding his disciplinary stances due to his tolerance for Stephen Garcia's hijinks, elected to work with Victor. As with Garcia, Hampton was placed under a "conduct contract" and reinstated.
Spurrier was skewered by opposing fanbases and certain media, accused of tolerating talented players' missteps because of their value to the team. Whether or not there's any truth to that, Hampton validated Spurrier's faith. He stayed out of further trouble and contributed in 2011, playing in 10 games in relief of future first rounder Stephon Gilmore. Hampton pulled down his first career interception against Kentucky, and returned seven kicks including a 55-yarder against Arkansas.
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With Gilmore's departure, the rising sophomore would assume the starting field corner role. Hampton's metamorphosis from wily underclassmen to veteran leader was in full swing, as evidenced by his earning the Everyday Attitude Award at the spring game. He would go on to start every game save for Florida (which was an aberration due to the sucky nature of the way that game began.) Hampton had a productive season, garnering 40 tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack, an interception, six pass breakups. The interception, as you may recall, sealed the victory over Tennessee. There was some chatter as to whether Hampton, a third year sophomore, would depart for the draft. Ultimately, he stayed put for his junior season, which was widely suspected to be his last in Columbia.
With Swearinger and a fleet of veteran linebackers gone, it fell to Hampton to assume the mantle of the defense's vocal leader. He inspired confidence in the early going, repeating as the Everyday Attitude Award winner at the spring game (an accolade shared with fellow early declarer Bruce Ellington.) In addition to his role at cornerback, Hampton was considered the leading candidate to take over for Ace Sanders in the return game. While that didn't particularly pan out—Hampton would cede much of his return duty to freshman Pharoh Cooper—he excelled at cornerback. His nine pass breakups were more than double the next closest player's total. He was one of four 50+ tacklers for Carolina, leading the squad in individual tackles (43). His five tackles for loss were tied for sixth on the team. After the Mississippi State game, he was named Defensive Player of the Week for an eight tackle performance that saw him break up three passes, and do this:
Hampton was ultimately named to the AP's All-Conference second team. His final lasting highlight in a Gamecock uniform came in the form of a bonecrushing hit leveled on Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave.
Shortly after the Gamecocks' 34-24 victory, Hampton declared for the NFL Draft.
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The miraculous career arc of Victor Hampton should be considered a testament to the value of patience, commitment, and faith as they pertain to college football players. And while it's clear how these concepts might be applied to on-field development of a freshman finding his legs, consider them from a more personal angle vis-à-vis Vic's progression: patience for a young man whose mentality and grasp of things, believe it or not, may still be developing; commitment by coaches to players they've elected to take on as mentees; and faith in a staff's evaluation of whether a player is too far gone to be helped or has squandered that right to such a courtesy. In Victor Hampton's case, Steve Spurrier didn't deem the totality of his early-career transgressions to be terminal. And while that meant a steady barrage of criticism from media and fans (both within the fanbase and otherwise), seeing Hampton come out the other side as a team leader and community presence has to be one of the more rewarding experiences of the Head Ball Coach's career. Part of a coach's job, after all, is to evaluate potential. Who says the potential in question must reside within the boundaries of play?
And this isn't to say Hampton doesn't have work to do. After all, he was suspended for half of this year's Georgia game and was replaced as a starter twice this season—once against Arkansas to break his habit of "freelancing" in coverage, then against Wisconsin for a minor violation of team rules* (he would go on to make significant contributions in both games.) But he's far removed from his days as a wanton prospect who couldn't stay out of his own way.
*And, of course, angry web denizens will voice untempered derision at even the meekest of offenses—I found it especially comical when, after watching social media flood with vitriolic condemnations from rival fans following Hampton's Wiconsin benching, the reason was revealed to be a ten minute breach in curfew. What a loose cannon!
South Carolina fans will miss Victor Hampton for a multitude of reasons, perhaps principally for his experience and the complementary lack of cornerback depth with which the team is left. And that's a fair priority—we're football fans after all—but who would have guessed that we might miss him in equal measure as an ambassador for the team and a presence in the community? Therein, in my opinion, lies the reason that recruiting battles aren't won with a verbal commitment or even a letter of intent. Only when a player has, for a final time, unlaced his cleats and shelved his helmet can one consider his recruitment to be a battle the program won. In the case of Victor Hampton, it was a victory for all parties involved.