PITTSBURGH — Last Saturday at Heinz Field, while Pitt was putting a beating on Rice, Pitt fans got to see something they’ve been waiting a long time to see.
It wasn’t just the victory over the Owls, who the Panthers hadn’t played since 1951. It was the full-time presence of a No. 3 navy blue uniform in the defensive backfield that Pitt fans have been waiting for, a hometown hero years in the making: Panthers defensive back Damar Hamlin.
The Panthers offered Hamlin a scholarship in June 2014. Hamlin was a sophomore at Pittsburgh Central Catholic and he was offered the scholarship by Paul Chryst, with current head coach Pat Narduzzi not in the picture for another six months.
By the time Hamlin made his college decision as a senior, he was rated as a four-star prospect and the No. 3 player in the state by 247Sports. He had over 30 Division I offers.
When he decided to commit to the Panthers over Ohio State and Penn State, he was seen as the crown jewel of Pitt’s recruiting class. Pitt’s football staff released a video of the coaches’ reaction to Hamlin announcing that he had committed to Pitt.
— Pat Narduzzi (@CoachDuzzPittFB) February 2, 2016
Ten days later, everything changed.
Hamlin had surgery early that February to correct an issue that had bothered him throughout Central Catholic’s run to state title the previous fall. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.
Hamlin recovered quickly enough to participate a bit in the Vikings’ track and field season before the end of his senior year. That June, he played in the Big 33 game, where he had an interception as Pennsylvania beat Maryland, 26-14.
But when Hamlin arrived at Pitt that summer for training camp, something still wasn’t right.
“He’s dealing with, just right now, I say minor, I say a minor little thing right now that we just can’t get right,” Pat Narduzzi said that August. “We’ve actually brought in a specialist to look at him. We saw enough early that we know he can help us, but we have to get him back on the field.”
Hamlin wasn’t a full participant in training camp and didn’t play until the eighth game of the year.
“My whole rehab, I was feeling positive,” Hamlin said this week in an exclusive interview with Pittsburgh Sports Now. “I didn’t even want to have the surgery in the first place, but I was being positive about it, rehabbing and rehabbing and feeling good. Once I got to college, the speed of the game and everything was too much on my body. I don’t think I was strong enough yet.”
Even when Hamlin finally got on the field, it was far from a success. He struggled through limited reps in three games against Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson. Something was clearly still not right.
“It was tough to get through a practice,” Hamlin said. “Everything was stressful. It just came to a point where I played in a couple games, but I was still going through a lot (of pain). Going through warmups, I was wondering if I was going to make it all the way through the game. It just came to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I told Duzzi, ‘I don’t think I can go.’”
It was a frustrating end to the 2016 season for Hamlin, who had high hopes of being a player that could have an impact as a true freshman. That’s why he jumped at the chance to take off his redshirt and play, even eight games into the season.
“During the season, it was frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to play, but as much as I wanted to, I (couldn’t). That was even more frustrating.”
After Hamlin shut things down for the season, he again went under the knife to see if another surgery could repair the core muscle injury — commonly called a sports hernia — that had been plaguing him.
Another surgery led to more rehab, and Hamlin spent Pitt’s bowl practice period on the sidelines while preparing to make his return in the spring. Before he could get cleared to make that return, though, he needed a re-evaluation, and he did not get good news.
“I was getting ready to go, hoping I was well,” Hamlin said. “I felt a little better, but something still didn’t feel right. So, I had a re-evaluation and they said, ‘You need another (surgery).’”
That news was a crushing blow for Hamlin, who after his third procedure, missed all off the team’s winter workouts, all of spring ball and most of summer workouts and training camp. Hamlin also knew it would put a big dent on any chance of him making an impact at the beginning of his sophomore year, as well.
“That was probably the toughest one to deal with, just because I was still not playing,” he said. “I definitely had high expectations for myself and so did everyone else. I wanted to come in right away and make an impact early wherever I could. I couldn’t do that because of the injuries.”
While the physical rehab was nothing new — after all, Hamlin was doing it for the third time — the mental part of dealing with the fact that he wasn’t meeting his goals, through no fault of his own, was something that Hamlin wasn’t as well prepared for. A conversation with a member of the training staff during that rehab helped put it into perspective for him.
“My plan was to come in right away, start and get on the field early,” Hamlin said. “That’s not God’s plan, so I just have to be patient and follow God’s plan. … I’m surrounded by good people here. I’m glad I came to Pitt. the whole process, there’s been nothing but positivity from everyone. The strength staff, my trainers, the coaches, it was all positivity.”
When Hamlin finally did make his return to the field, he did so not as a cornerback — the position he played as a freshman and through four years of high school — but as a safety. The physical challenges of the safety position are actually more demanding than that of the corner spot, but Hamlin won’t be asked to turn and run with a receiver as often while playing the field safety spot, and that should help protect him from another injury.
“I feel like I could play corner now, but I’m just going to stick with safety right now,” he said. “Just dealing with all of that, I just didn’t want to have to worry about anything anymore. I wanted to be able to just play.”
Hamlin got his first action of the season in some garbage time Sept. 16 against Oklahoma State. He got more playing time against Georgia Tech Sept. 23 and made an impact on special teams, delivering a crushing block on Quadree Henderson’s punt return touchdown.
“Damar is getting better every week, and he’s aggressive, he’s tough,” Narduzzi said after the Georgia Tech game. “I don’t know if you noticed his block on the punt return for a touchdown, but he’s physical, too. I mean, for a guy that has not played a lot of football here, he’s a football player, and I like what I see out of him.”
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) September 25, 2017
Last Saturday against Rice, Hamlin essentially split snaps with fellow Central Catholic alum Bricen Garner while making an even bigger impact on the game. He grabbed his first career interception at the end of the first half and added four tackles. But Hamlin is far from satisfied by that result.
“I feel like I haven’t made a big enough step yet, but I’m improving each day,” he said. “I’ve got to put in extra work because I didn’t have the camp everyone had. I didn’t have that month period to get ready. After practice, I’ve got to put in extra work. I’ve got to do different things so that I can keep progressing the way that I want to.”
Not only has Hamlin had to deal with the physical and mental aspects of the recovery process, the transition to safety hasn’t been a seamless one, either. Cornerback is one of the easiest positions to learn in Pitt’s Cover 4 defense. That’s why freshmen like Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock have been able to play as true freshman this season.
The safety spots, on the other hand, require plenty of nuance on coverages, checks, calls and communication that even experienced players frequently get wrong. Rice’s lone touchdown on Saturday came after Hamlin missed a key and got caught looking in the backfield on a 70-yard catch and run.
“I was playing corner last year, so I’m seeing everything from a different view at safety,” Hamlin said. “I felt like I was real smart at corner. It was real natural. I was making calls and stuff. But at safety, everything looks different. It was definitely a tough adjustment.”
Hamlin enjoys the challenge, and though he’ll stick at field safety for now, could probably play all four spots in the secondary. He’s also enjoying the chance to play next to two-time all-ACC boundary safety Jordan Whitehead.
“I’ve known Jordan since Little League,” Hamlin said. “We’ve been playing against each other since we were young. He was a year older than me, but we would always play each other one year. I got to know him through high school. We were always the top players in WPIAL. So to play with him now, it’s just fun. Even off the field, I hang out with him. We compliment each other. I vibe off his energy and he always brings energy.”
Hamlin earnestly wants to make the same kind of impact that Whitehead has on Pitt’s defense, and he wants to do it quickly. But he doesn’t have any specific goals for himself for the remainder of the 2017 season.
“It’s just for the team to win,” he said. “Keep winning and getting better.”