NU linebacker signee Willie Hampton has little to say, but a lot to do

NU linebacker signee Willie Hampton played for an elite high school team in Plantation, where his coach said he showed some of his elite teammates “how to work.”

LINCOLN — If you ask enough questions, Willie Hampton has plenty to say, but his nature is to be a little quiet. Focused. Matter of fact. To the point.

The linebacker from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was the first commit to Nebraska’s 2017 recruiting class. He never sought more offers, never sought any press, and while waiting to move to Nebraska in early June, he hasn’t spent much time striking up long conversations with his fellow signees. He doesn’t know who his roommate will be.

Hampton — 6-foot-1, 223 pounds — also doesn’t know if NU plans to use him as an inside or outside linebacker. He just wants to show up, work and prove himself. He figures he already made a wise choice in picking Nebraska.

“I loved all of it,” Hampton said of his visit, which came months after he committed and was his first trip to the Midwest. “I thought it was going to be empty, but it was a city.”

Nebraska found Hampton, he said, after he posted good physical testing numbers at a local Nike event. He ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash. He had a 35-inch vertical leap. Both impressive for a linebacker. Hampton got his offer from NU and was impressed that the Huskers beat all of the local schools to the punch, so he jumped on board. No peer in the class recruited him. No offer — except, perhaps, from Miami — would have swayed him anyway. The Hurricanes never came through, so Nebraska it was. The Huskers checked off all of his boxes. Academics, training facilities and a position coach in Trent Bray who would make him better.

“And Coach (Mike) Riley’s a nice dude,” Hampton said.

That kind of straightforward approach has served Hampton well. He chose two private schools — first smallish Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, and next American Heritage High School in Plantation — for their academics and professional atmosphere above all else (both require student uniforms). But when Hampton transferred for his senior year to American Heritage — a titan in Florida prep football — he was deliberately choosing to test himself as a football player, too.

Heritage won the Florida 5A state title last season with a 14-0 record. One Heritage offensive tackle signed with hometown Miami. The other signed with Florida. That’s who Hampton faced each day in practice.

“You can’t just push around everybody,” Hampton said. “I had to learn to use more technique. I couldn’t use straight athleticism. It made me a better player. I couldn’t just run past people. I detailed it. I’m way better. I got faster, stronger and smarter.”

“Iron sharpens iron,” said American Heritage coach Patrick Surtain. “Willie took his lumps, but he won some, too.”

Surtain was more struck by Hampton’s approach to joining the team.

“You get some of these new guys who come in and like to run their mouths and everything,” Surtain said. “But he got straight to it. He didn’t let things distract him. He showed some of the guys how to work.”

Which, to Surtain, meant a lot. As an 11-year NFL cornerback — and three-time Pro Bowler — Surtain already knows what elite athleticism looks like; he had it himself. Plus, American Heritage is stuffed to the brim with talent. Surtain’s son, Patrick Jr., is the nation’s consensus No. 1 cornerback prospect for 2018. Another Heritage corner, Tyson Alexander, is considered the nation’s No. 2 cornerback prospect by ESPN.

“We have a bunch of big shots on the team,” Surtain said. “Willie blended in and got right with the program. Once you see a kid who’s willing to work, you welcome him.”

Hampton, for example, had to win his starting job and then keep it. He did, finishing with 71 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and six sacks. It was a standout season on one of the nation’s top 30 teams, according to MaxPreps.

“He’s a playmaker,” Surtain said. “You put that kid anywhere, he’ll succeed, but because of his size, he’s a 3-4 outside linebacker who can rush the passer. He’s a fast, explosive guy on the field.”

Passionate, too. Hampton said he likes watching the game, but usually, that just intensifies his itch to practice and play. It’s been that way as long as he can remember, since he started football with the Sunrise Gators youth football league. Hampton likes doing it more than he likes talking about it.

“I’ve been playing football since I was mobile,” Hampton said. “All my friends, all my cousins, all my older brothers, they played football. They ain’t played big-time, serious, but when you’re young, you play football. Down here in Broward County, in Fort Lauderdale, everybody plays football. It’s a thing. It’s like you’re born into it.”

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