PITTSBURGH — A week ago, Pitt wasn’t necessarily planning on having true freshman and Central Catholic grad Damar Hamlin this season.
Hamlin, the team’s top-rated prospect in the recruiting Class of 2016, missed most of training camp and the first four weeks of the season with a nagging injury related to the sports hernia surgery he had in the spring.
While Hamlin was once figured to be a dominant force for the Panthers in his freshman season, it seemed that as Pitt approached the eighth game of the season, that he would most likely be redshirted.
Instead, Phillipie Motley went down with what appears to be a long-term leg injury in the first half against Virginia Tech. With Avonte Maddox already down with an elbow injury and the rest of the unit not exactly playing inspired football, the coaching staff decided it was time to turn to Hamlin.
“It was a complete coaching staff decision,” said cornerbacks coach Renaldo Hill. “He’s been progressing — as we’ve seen — through this process. He got off to a slow start, just by losing reps in training camp. Now, he’s able to continue to work and get those one and two reps and he’s pushed himself into that [two-deep] lineup. He’s a talented guy and we needed somebody to go out there and see if we can make a play. He wanted to play. We discussed it as a group throughout the whole staff, along with him, and we thought it was the best decision for our team to put a better guy [out there] as far as size-wise and the ability to make a play.”
The ability to make a play, particularly on the ball once it’s been thrown, has been the focus of Pitt’s defensive backs this week. In particular, the Panthers struggled with fade routes thrown to the back shoulder against Virginia Tech. In recognition of that, expect the Panthers to come out with something of a different look at the line of scrimmage against Miami this Saturday.
“It’s tightening our alignment at the line so we can get more of the guys, so we can put ourselves in better position,” Hill said. “I didn’t think we were out of position. I didn’t think there were any blown coverages. It just comes down to the opportunity of when the ball is in the air, we have to find a way to make plays.”
The Pitt defensive backs spent extra time working on jams at the line of scrimmage in practice Wednesday. When it comes to defending a fade, disrupting the timing of the quarterback and the receiver can be a big weapon, but it can be a double-edged sword. If a cornerback misses on a jam, it can cause an even bigger play with a receiver running downfield unchecked.
“We have to do a great job of winning at the line and trying to change up things — maybe not give those guys just one look,” Hill said.
The other potential avenue improvement will rest with the play of Hamlin. At 6-foot-1, he has size that Pitt’s other options don’t possess, and he feels that after a few snaps in the fourth quarter to get his feet wet, he’s primed to make an impact.
“There were a lot of emotions running through me,” Hamlin said. “I was nervous. I was excited. It feels good to get that first one out of the way so I can just play now.”
Hamlin said he saw some “minor things” on his film that he’d like to clean up, and he’s getting the opportunity to do so in practice this week. Now that he’s definitely going to play going forward, Hamlin has been getting work with the first unit behind Ryan Lewis and Dane Jackson.
“I’m getting a lot more reps with the ones and I’m getting more prepared to play,” Hamlin said. “It made me lock in more this week on my film and everything. Just getting back to how we used to do it in high school. I feel like I can just play now with no nervousness.”
Hamlin traveled with the team for the first time three weeks ago at Virginia, but didn’t get on the field. This time, instead of watching from the sidelines, Hamlin will most likely be involved from get-go, as he’s been working on special teams, as well as defense. It’s been an unexpected turn this late in his freshman year, but Hamlin certainly isn’t complaining.
“It just hurt to be sitting out there watching because I wanted to be out there helping the team,” he said. “But I just had to wait on my moment.”