Navy's Hampton awaits first test

Intent since Poinsettia, QB looks to blossom

September 02, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Reporter

As a mechanical engineering major aiming to be a fighter pilot with the Marines or the Navy, Brian Hampton is analytical by nature.

And the Midshipmen's senior quarterback, who will make his first career start today in Navy's season opener against visiting East Carolina, has studied the hurdles before him.

Reaffirm the trust of his teammates, who believe Hampton will lead the way to more of the success that has come to define the program under fifth-year coach Paul Johnson. Put his own stamp on the spread offense, which has been managed by three winning quarterbacks - Craig Candeto, Aaron Polanco and Lamar Owens - who preceded him. Let the big plays come to him, while letting go of high expectations and the added pressure they produce.

After a month of practice under the exacting, demanding Johnson, Hampton needs to pass the first test, the one that has been on his mind since the Midshipmen hammered Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl more than eight months ago.

"I've thought about [the opener] since the day after our bowl game," said Hampton, alluding to the pre-game atmosphere on game day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "The brigade and all the other people in the stands, the jets flying over. The palms start to sweat, your heart starts to beat a little quicker. It's an intense feeling.

"But it's all about lining up against a defense and having that first play. I'm not going to say I'm perfectly prepared for anything, but we're getting there pretty rapidly."

Hampton is all about breaking things down, be it the cultural differences he encountered while relocating often as the son of a retired Air Force veteran, the proper reads he must make to keep the Mids' triple option running smoothly, or mechanical details. One might find Hampton, for example, obsessing over proper footwork on different option calls or how precise thumb placement on his grip maximizes his throwing accuracy.

Talk to the coaching staff - which made Hampton the No. 1 quarterback last spring, then watched him easily hold off all challengers in August - and you hear teachers trying to keep the student from thinking too much.

"Brian has done some good things and there are some things we would like to improve. He's gotten better," said Johnson, who has blasted his quarterback occasionally, such as the time in a recent scrimmage when Hampton forced an ill-advised pass into tight coverage. "As long as he doesn't try to do stupid stuff and lets the big plays happen, he should be fine."

"He over-analyzes sometimes," quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper added. "The biggest thing for [Hampton] will be to get that first series out of the way on Saturday and exhale. React, let your athleticism take over and just play."

Hampton, 5 feet 11, 208 pounds, who has the elusiveness, strong upper body and powerful legs necessary to take and dish out punishment in Navy's run-dominated attack, has been adjusting his whole life.

While his father, Charles, was pursuing a 22-year run with the Air Force, mainly as a service contractor, the Hampton family was on the move, living in such places as Guam, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Ohio and finally, Illinois.

Brian recalled living until about age 9 on Guam, where strangers mingled easily, where anyone who wandered by a beach party was privy to food and drinks. Then, after moving to Los Angeles, 10-year-old Brian made the innocent mistake of reaching into a stranger's cooler on a beach to grab a soda.

"This guy flips, just goes off. My mom [Tonie, a paralegal] apologized and calmed him down," recalled Hampton, who picked up quickly on other differences. "I didn't see color in Guam. I called my mom white. One thing that became pretty apparent to me is there are differences between races in America."

When the family settled for good in the Fairview Heights area of Illinois, where it first lived on Scott Air Force Base, Hampton was a teenager immersed in the classroom and the quarterback position. He ran the pass-heavy, run-and-shoot at Belleville-Althoff Catholic High, which went 12-1 and made it to the state semifinals his senior year.

By then, Hampton was committed to the Naval Academy, and football was a secondary consideration.

"I remember Northwestern was interested in [Brian], and he said something about them being one of the top five in the country. I'm like, `What are you talking about?' " Charles said. "Brian was talking about top five academically. He was always one to lean to that side. Sports were almost an afterthought."

Hampton has absorbed the Division I game from various angles. Primarily a kick return man as a freshman in 2003, he never saw the field as a No. 3 quarterback two years ago, before spelling Owens by appearing in all 12 games in 2005. He ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 99 yards and another score.

Although his teammates voted senior center James Rossi co-captain from the offense, they do not lack confidence in Hampton.

"With Brian, it's like another cog fitting into the machine," senior tackle Matt Pritchett said.

"We know if we get our stuff straight, [Hampton] has his end of the deal covered," added senior guard Zach Gallion. "He's the last thing we're worried about." gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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