Patrick Hampton could tell you he was stuck behind All-Americans and first-round draft picks in his first three seasons as a USF defensive end, but he's humble enough to admit that early on, he wasn't big enough or strong enough to do what he needed on the field. "When I first got here, I was about 207 pounds," he remembered, wincing as he smiled after practice last week. "I was getting shoved around like a little play doll. I've been through a lot. Being tortured like that, I just started eating, but I love to eat." Hampton, a junior from Lithonia, Ga., now is 247 pounds, and while muscle is a big part of that weight gain, apparently so are pork chops — "I can kill some pork chops," he explains — and, yes, Hamburger Helper. "The three-cheese one," he says. "You gotta gain weight, you gotta eat."
A hungrier Hampton this fall has worked his way into essentially a three-man rotation at defensive end with seniors Craig Marshall and David Bedford. And with Marshall sidelined with a broken bone in his foot, Hampton is expected to get his first career start tonight against Rutgers. He said the extended playing time he has gotten in recent weeks has him well-prepared.
"The opportunity showed up," the 21-year-old said. "Being in a position to start, that was driving me. Getting into a second position, I was trying to move and get more playing time. It's worked out for me — I was getting a lot of snaps the last few games. It's exciting to get my first start. I've been patiently waiting, and my time is here. I just have to show up."
Hampton had eight tackles in his first two seasons, including a half-sack as a redshirt freshman in 2008; he has 12 tackles this season, and his two sacks are the most among the five ends USF will use against the Scarlet Knights. Bedford, who starts on the opposite side, spent much of the past two seasons on the bench with Hampton but never heard him complain.
"The thing I like about Patrick is when he first got here, he didn't play that much, just like I didn't play that much," Bedford said. "But when he got into the game, if he was in for three plays, he made three tackles. I've been around guys, when we didn't play as much as we would like, they complained and moaned. You didn't hear anything from him. He just went out and practiced."
Becoming a more prominent member of the team — he also lines up in the backfield as a "shield" in protection on punts — has made Hampton a more social person, something his head coach has appreciated the past few months.
"When we first got here, he was very quiet, very stand-offish, never smiled, and I didn't know him well enough," coach Skip Holtz said. "The more committed he's become, the more I see him coming out of his shell, the more I'm seeing him smile and gain a personality and intermix with the guys and laugh and joke. I really like the guy. He's a good kid."
It's not a bad thing to have your first career start as a pass rusher against Rutgers, which has allowed 33 sacks this season, the most of any of the 120 programs in Division I-A. That includes seven last week by Pittsburgh, which is tied with USF for ninth nationally with 21 sacks this season. Hampton and the rest of a largely untested group of ends hope to add to that total by getting to true freshman quarterback Chas Dodd.
"Watching the growth and the development of Patrick through camp, he's a guy who, about the third or fourth game, we said he's playing at the same level as the other two," Holtz said. "We looked at it like we had three starters at the defensive end positions the last five weeks."
Hampton, on course to graduate in four years next spring with a degree in communications, didn't take up football until the eighth grade — baseball was his sport before that — and started only two years in high school. He racked up 19 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, as a senior, choosing USF over offers to schools such as Purdue and Indiana.
"He's practiced as well as anybody has during camp and throughout the first half of the season. He really got people's attention, and that's why he's starting to play more, because of the way he's practicing," ends coach Vernon Hargreaves said. "I feel confident about him being that guy. He hasn't been in that role before, so I'm not going to just wear him out, but I feel real good about him coming in and taking on the challenge."