Bigger Darius Hamilton returns to High Point Solutions Stadium for Rutgers' home opener
Darius Hamilton had to stop and think for a moment when asked if he could remember his last game at High Point Solutions Stadium.
After a few seconds, the fifth-year senior took a stab at who the opponent was.
He was right.
The Rutgers football team's 45-23 win over the Hoosiers in the home finale of the 2014 season was the last time Hamilton competed on the Scarlet Knights' home turf.
The former five-star recruit injured his knee during training camp leading up to the 2015 season and missed the Knights' first two games, which were both at home. Despite still being injured, the defensive tackle made his debut in the third week of the season against Penn State in Happy Valley.
But Hamilton barely played in a 28-3 drubbing at the hands of the Nittany Lions, and was shut down for the remainder of the season the following week because of his hampering right-knee injury — which he was later granted a medical redshirt season for by the NCAA.
This Saturday at noon, nearly 22 months to the date later, the West Paterson, New Jersey, native will make his return to High Point Solutions Stadium when Rutgers (0-1) hosts Howard (0-1) in the Knights' home opener.
"I’m really excited to be here for the home opener and just to go out there, see the fans, play ball with these guys and just do it big," Hamilton said.
Rutgers' matchup with Howard will mark the second straight week of firsts for Darius Hamilton. While this week is the three-time captain's first home game in almost two years, last week was the first full game he had played in since the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl.
After being handled cautiously by head football coach Chris Ash and his staff during both spring and training camp, Hamilton was finally unleashed in the Knights' season-opening 48-13 loss to Washington in Seattle.
His only mark left on the final box score was three assisted tackles, but his underwhelming stat line wasn't reflective of his overall play, according to the coaching staff.
"I thought (Darius) played real well," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "We identified him as a guy we felt played at a championship-caliber level of play. He did a very good job against a lot of the double teams and things like that. With the added weight and strength that he put on since (strength and conditioning) coach Parker started working with him, I think he performed real well and held up, not only fundamentally, but physically very well."
The senior captain was appreciative of his defensive coordinator's ringing endorsement of his play against the Huskies, but downplayed his performance when self-evaluating his own game.
"Statistic wise I’d like to be more productive than I was," Hamilton said. "Did my assignments, was tough at the point of attack and physical. I really appreciate the things (Niemann) said, but I just try to go out there and do my job 110 percent of the time."
The Darius Hamilton that Rutgers fans will see on Saturday will be a lot different from the defensive lineman they last saw take the field in Piscataway in November of 2014.
The Don Bosco product added around 40 pounds of weight to his 6-foot-3 frame since the 2014 season, bulking up from the mid-240s to 285 pounds. The hope is that, with the increased weight, Hamilton can become a more durable player at the defensive tackle position.
He has gone through an adjustment period playing at the new weight, but Hamilton's already reaping the benefits of having the extra pounds on him in the trenches.
"Obviously the first time playing at 285, 286 I was a little winded, but it was a lot of fun," Hamilton said. "Definitely feel a lot stronger when I put my hands on people. I feel it and I know they feel it. So it’s definitely exciting."
Hamilton remains upbeat on the prospect of returning to the "old self" production-wise that garnered him Honorable Mention All-Big Ten in 2014. As a full-time starter in 2013 and 2014 he made a total of 93 tackles — 62 of them solo and 24.5 for loss — and 10.5 sacks.
If Hamilton is already playing at a championship-caliber level — against a top-25 Huskies squad nonetheless — through one game, adding in production on top of that would be a substantial boost to a defense that is inexperienced behind its tested front four.
But above all, the Knights are simply pleased to have Darius Hamilton back — both as a teammate and as a leader.
"He's definitely an emotional leader out there," said senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick. "He's a real intense guy. He kind of makes a play when you really don't expect it. It's like, 'there goes Darius again, how's he really do that'. It's really good to have him out there. He's a good confident guy and he brings a lot of confidence to the d-line (and) to the defense."