Muhammad Oliver knows a Division I defensive back when he sees one.
After all, the 52-year-old Oliver was once a cornerback and decathlete at the University of Oregon, who played parts of four NFL seasons with five different teams. And his son, Isaiah Oliver, earned All-Pac-12 honors as a corner at the University of Colorado before being selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round in 2018.
So, when “Coach Mo” says a kid is bound for a college secondary, that qualifies as much more than an uninformed opinion.
And yet, in the moment, Darrell Hampton hesitated.
Because his son, Dominique, had just started fifth grade.
“He came up to me after one practice,” Darrell Hampton recalled of Oliver, Dominique’s Pop Warner football coach. “He said, ‘Dom is a D1 DB.’ I said, ‘Hold on, man. He’s in the fifth grade. What do you mean?’
“He said, ‘He’s the fastest guy on our team. Look at his legs. Look at his arms. Look at the way he opens up (his hips). I played collegiately. I played in the league. You can etch it in stone. He’s a D1 DB.’”
That statement is all the more surprising when you consider the context. As a first-grade running back competing against older kids, Hampton was hit so hard that he quit football entirely for two years. In the meantime, he turned his attention to track and field, eventually making it onto the national circuit.
Of course, Oliver coached Dominique in track and field, too.
And when the sprinter and long jumper returned to the gridiron, he brought a prematurely polished athletic repertoire.
“When I thought about his future, I really thought defensive back — specifically corner — was going to be his future,” Oliver said last week. “It was his change of direction. He was a very physical player. He was very fast. He had a knack for locating the ball. Certain traits came about at a very young age that I felt like, if he got some really good corner training, he could have a huge future at corner. Because I knew he was going to be a great athlete, and you usually take your best athletes and put them in the defensive backfield.”
As for that emphatic prophecy, Oliver added: “I can count on one hand the number of kids that I’ve coached in all these years that I’ve really felt at a young age I could identify as a potential Division I athlete, and Dominique is one of them.”
So, unsurprisingly, Dominique dominated.
But it was failure, not success, that made Oliver more assured of Hampton’s college football future.
“He would get down on himself if things didn’t work out — if he dropped a pass or missed a tackle, just like any kid,” Oliver said. “But he was really, really down on himself. It really bothered him. Extremely competitive kid. That was another trait that led me to believe he was always going to do the extra thing to get better and be successful.”
And there’s the lesson: even with every conceivable color or brush, it takes a dedicated painter to produce a masterpiece. With size alone, or speed alone, or anything alone, Hampton would not have earned a scholarship offer from the Washington Huskies.
It required a comprehensive commitment to fulfill Oliver’s prophecy.
“I’ve never had to push him,” Darrell Hampton said. “I actually had to reel him back in. He was trying to go to the gym with me when he was in the seventh grade. I thought he was too young. I said, ‘Do pushups and sit-ups. Work with your body weight. You’ll get to the weights when you get to high school.’ So once he started lifting, I’ve never had to push him to lift, to condition, any of that. He’s a self-starter.”
And yet, it took him a while to get started in Seattle. In his first three seasons as a reserve cornerback, Hampton produced nine tackles in 19 career games. He was relegated to the back row of a defensive backs room that included Elijah Molden, Trent McDuffie, Keith Taylor and more.
“He’s had to learn patience, because he’s thought about putting his name in the transfer portal,” Darrell Hampton said. “But all you need to see is a smidgen of that light at the end of the tunnel, and he saw that when Keith (Taylor) and Elijah (Molden) decided to leave. He was like, ‘Well, there’s no way I shouldn’t be on the field playing one of two positions (corner or safety) next year.’ I think it was just patience and a lot of talking to us, because we’ve talked him out of (entering the transfer portal) two or three times.”
Instead, he stayed. He kept on painting. And, after bulking up to 220 pounds, the former Centennial (Peoria, Ariz.) High School standout slid back to safety this spring — joining a competition with Cameron Williams, Asa Turner, Julius Irvin and Alex Cook for two available starting spots.
In April, Hampton was one of UW’s most dramatic risers.
Now, he needs to prove he’s ready to play.
“You guys see his measurables. They look awesome — his speed, his height, all of that,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said. “But, especially at that safety position or anywhere in the back end, if you make a mistake it can be an 80-yard touchdown for our opponent.
“So, it’s just really cleaning up all the details of his position, so we can trust that we can put him out there, and he’s going to lay the running back down. Or if they’re trying to launch a big pass play he’s got to knock the pass down or intercept it, or at least be in the way so they can’t complete it. The more he builds that trust, you guys will see him out there playing for us.”
On the field, Hampton’s improvement has been apparent. The 6-foot-2 sophomore made the defense’s premier play Monday, out-dueling wide receiver Sawyer Racanelli for a soaring interception.
But when practice ends, the work continues.
“I don’t want to get his head too big, but he’s just a freak specimen,” said UW linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. “He’s my roommate, and every time I get home he’s sitting there watching film, asking me questions. Literally, last night he woke me up in the middle of the night, asking me some random football question.”
In that case, maybe it’s time to take an 11-year-old lesson from “Coach Mo”:
Don’t go sleeping on Dominique Hampton.
“His DB coaches have told him it’s his time. Coach Lake has told him it’s his time. So he’s ready to show Husky Nation that his time is now,” Darrell Hampton said last week. “I have no doubts that he’s ready. I know he’s ready. We’re just waiting for the rest of Husky Nation to find out.”