Darius Hamilton returned to old self in dominating performance against New Mexico
It was just an ordinary Tuesday practice for the Rutgers football team during the week leading up to its showdown with New Mexico.
But for Darius Hamilton, it was much more than that.
For the first time in over a year, the three-time captain on the defensive line wasn't sporting the No. 91 green practice jersey — indicating that he is a limited participant — that his coaches, teammates and the media had grown accustomed to seeing him in.
Instead, the defensive tackle was matching the rest of his fellow Scarlet Knight teammates with a red jersey, taking part in a full practice for the first time since injuring his right knee — which caused him to miss all but a handful of snaps in the 2015 season — last training camp.
"No doubt," Hamilton said when asked if it meant something to him to be a full participant at practices again. "And those first two days were absolutely brutal. That Tuesday and that Wednesday were probably the worst I felt from a conditioning standpoint in a while, but I mean it's paying off and it's gonna continue to pay off."
Hamilton officially made his long-awaited return to the gridiron in the Knights' season opener against then-No. 14 Washington.
But it was in Rutgers' latest game against New Mexico that the Darius Hamilton of old — the same one who earned Third Team All-Big Ten honors in 2014 — made his return in the stat sheet.
The Don Bosco Prep product recorded double-digit tackles in a game for the first time in his career, taking down 10 Lobos ball carriers. Half of his tackles were solo and one came for a loss of 2 yards.
And it was no coincidence that the same week Hamilton began taking full reps at practice, he would go on to have his best game of the season.
"What's really helped me the most, honestly, has been getting out to practice, being able to do all the drills, getting my wind under me," Hamilton said after a 37-28 win over the Lobos. "I mean there wasn't a time out there today where I was gassed. Those first two games, I couldn't have looked at you guys and said that. So just being out there, not being limited, getting all the reps. It's really paying off."
While his coaches were very complimentary of Hamilton's play through the first two games, the West Paterson, New Jersey, native was critical of himself for his lack of production. Against Washington and Howard, he had just four combined tackles, with none coming for a loss.
Playing at an increased weight of around 285 pounds, Hamilton has gone through an adjustment period with the added 40-plus pounds of new weight on his frame. He added on that extra weight to increase his durability and strength in the trenches, something he has said he is already reaping the benefits of.
But regardless of having to adjust to playing with his new body, Hamilton felt obligated to have the kind of performance he did against New Mexico after falling short of his expectations for two straight games.
"It was huge. Just from a psyche-level I guess," Hamilton said of his upping his production against New Mexico. "It's something that I felt compelled to do and luckily I was able to go out there and execute."
The defensive line was long considered to be the strongest unit Rutgers had to offer in 2016, in large part due to the return of Hamilton. That preseason notion has been carried out through the first quarter of the regular season, but the formula for success up front hasn't been all Darius Hamilton, all the time.
Fellow senior captain Julian Pinnix-Odrick leads the Knights in total tackles (20), tackles for loss (4.5 for 22 yards) and sacks (3.5). At the other defensive end position opposite Pinnix-Odrick, senior Quanzell Lambert has 10 tackles.
Up the middle next to Hamilton, junior Sebastian Joseph has played a substantial role in Rutgers' run defense.
In addition to that starting unit, junior Darnell Davis and sophomore Kevin Wilkins have rotated in up front to combine for 14 tackles.
"You look at the first game against Washington, I thought the strength of our defense was the D-line," said head football coach Chris Ash. "What Howard did to us didn't necessarily have anything to do with the D-line ... Then you look at this last week, the D-line is the reason that we were able to end up defending that option fairly well in the last three quarters of the game because of the way they played. Again, just like all the positions, we're not where we want to be yet, but I like the progress that I'm seeing, the work ethic, the chemistry of that group. Their performance continues, to me, to get better every Saturday."
With the Knights entering Big Ten play this Saturday with a noon matchup against Iowa at High Point Solutions Stadium, they're going to need that front four to be stout against the Hawkeyes and the eight conference opponents that follow.
If Darius Hamilton continues to play and produce like he did against New Mexico, that's a good start for a defense that is going to be tasked with containing dangerous, multi-faceted offenses on most of the remaining Saturdays this season.
"He's a tremendous football player and a really good leader," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann on Hamilton. "His quality of play these first three games has been very, very good. So certainly we're better up front with him than we are without him. We really appreciate the contributions he's made and look forward to a lot more of the same kind of play throughout the remainder of the year."