A.J. Hampton has done enough in his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football career to remain relevant in the eyes of the coaching staff. Whenever he's been inserted in the game over his three seasons, he's made a play, including a blocked punt in 2013, a fumble recovery last season.
Now he may get to make plays throughout the course of a game in the starting lineup.
Hampton has played in 34 games, all in a backup capacity, but has been slotted as the initial replacement for the graduated Muhasibi Wakeel, who led the team in tackles in 2014 with 112.
"I've focused a lot this spring on making less mistakes and seeing the field a lot better," Hampton said after Wednesday's practice. "If I do mess up, the coaches are right on me and I'm able to fix it right away. Mostly this summer, I've worked on learning the defense, feeling comfortable out there and having good vision when I'm on the field."
After a redshirt season in 2011, the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder played in all 11 games in 2012. With the depth chart limited at linebacker in the 2013 season, Hampton had a chance to earn some additional playing time. He had four tackles in the game against Appalachian State before an injury caused him to miss the final three games of the year.
Behind Wakeel and Nakevion Leslie last season, he made 31 tackles.
"We've always thought he had a lot of ability," UTC coach Russ Huesman said. "Two years ago, he had moved himself up and was going to be the guy. Last season, Muhasibi and Key stayed pretty healthy so A.J. only saw spot duty, but every time when he got in there, he made plays.
"That's what we expect from him this year."
Leslie is the established veteran of the linebacker corps. Heading into his fifth season, Hampton is the senior member, while younger players such as sophomores T.J. Jenkins and Dale Warren and redshirt freshman Tim Whatley have made positive plays during the spring.
The Mocs have had eight of their allotted 15 spring practices. They'll return to the field Monday afternoon.
"We're all in the same meeting room," Hampton said. "We get along very well, and our job now is to make sure the people behind the starters are prepared to come in if we mess up or have to go out for a couple of plays. We have to make sure they can come in and get the job done as well."
After all, that's what has worked for Hampton.
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