Hampton walking path of Leonhard

first_imgMATTHEW KUTZ/Herald photoThree years ago, the well-known tale of Jim Leonhard began with a bounty of interceptions in the spring, leading to a rise up the depth chart and, eventually, a starting job. With the move, Leonhard went from a walk-on and small town unknown to a star and household name.Now, another Badger with humble roots is eager to do the same. Hailing from Lancaster, Wis., (a town of just over 4,000), junior Zach Hampton entered this spring with one goal: Follow Leonhard’s ascension.“Jim has always been an inspiration to me and to other walk-ons,” Hampton said. “But, every walk-on here, coming in their main goal is to earn a scholarship, and now that I’ve done that, I’m trying to make that next step just like he did. If I wanted to mold myself after someone, it would be Jim Leonhard for sure.”Hampton came to Wisconsin with a similar pedigree to that of Leonhard. A small town kid — though Lancaster pales in comparison to Leonhard’s native Tony in that regard — Hampton made 17 interceptions in his high school career, returning three of them for touchdowns. He also took three punt returns and four kickoffs to pay dirt. Hampton then made the choice to attend Wisconsin as a walk-on and work his way into the rotation.Similar to Leonhard, Hampton paid his dues, earning time and praise on special teams. Over the last two years, he recorded 10 tackles, including four solo stops this past fall. He lined up as a gunner on punts and as the lead blocker on kick returns, doing whatever the coaches asked of him.“That helped out a lot,” Hampton said of the experience. “Special teams last year was a blast. I had a good time and that just led into this spring and then finally doing good in the spring and getting a little bit of rotation in practice with the [first string]. And that felt really good, and hopefully in the fall I get the same.”Hampton made the most of his chances this spring while working with the first and second team defenses. The junior flew around to the football, making interceptions and breaking up passes regardless of who was manning the strong safety spot next to him. Hampton could potentially fill a big role for the Wisconsin defense, a unit searching for a playmaker in the backfield after losing three of last year’s four starters, including Leonhard and cornerback Scott Starks, both of whom displayed that penchant in their respective careers.“I’d like to be (a playmaker), but everybody out there’s trying to make plays,” Hampton said. “If the opportunity comes, I’m going to try to get it.”Hampton entered the spring campaign behind junior Roderick Rogers on the depth chart at free safety, but earned repetitions with the top defense after continuing to make plays in practice. Saturday’s spring game was the latest example, as Hampton picked off starting quarterback John Stocco in the first quarter, putting the stamp on a standout spring for the junior safety.“Playmaker today,” defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said of Hampton after the game. “He’s a guy who got people in position and got them directed in the back end. Those are the guys that have to make checks and movements and alignments and adjustments and he did a good job of that.”While Rogers played solid football during the spring season and holds a considerable advantage in size (6-foot-2 compared to Hampton at 5-foot-10), Hampton’s ball-hawking skills have caught the eye of the UW coaching staff, much like Leonhard’s did three years ago. According to Bielema, the two free safeties are neck-and-neck following the spring game.“I think Zach and Roderick are right there together,” Bielema said. “After this performance you’d obviously make sure that you re-evaluate what’s going on. But, Zach is a good football player who came to us as a walk-on. [He is] extremely gifted athletically, has proven himself as a good football player.”Next fall, Hampton will no longer carry that walk-on status after impressing the UW coaching staff enough to earn a scholarship. After this spring, he will by his own admission have more confidence and will look to parlay that confidence into a starting job.“That’s my main goal, is to be a starter, but it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of time,” Hampton said. “Roderick’s a really good safety and he’s been in front of me the whole time, so I’m just trying to work my way in there any way I can; if it’s at nickel, it’s at nickel, if it’s free safety then let it be.”last_img

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