FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Victor Hampton plotted all week, preparing himself from the moment coaches stripped his starting job and gave it to someone else.
South Carolina’s junior cornerback wanted to prove his coaches wrong. He envisioned making a game-changing play, something to show they’d made a mistake. It came in the first quarter, the first time Hampton got on the field.
Hampton recognized the play from film study. He knew Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen would throw a sideline pass. When he did, Hampton was there to intercept it, jumping the route so quickly that Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wondered if the cornerback was in his team’s huddle.
Down the field Hampton streaked, on his way to the end zone before turning and running toward the middle of the field. He was tackled short of the goal line, but his interception set up South Carolina’s first touchdown in what would become a blowout. The Gamecocks scored 52 straight points in their most lopsided win against an SEC opponent not named Kentucky.
Afterward, Hampton was vindicated.
“One of the things I told myself this week was, ‘When I do get my chance to get in, try to show them why I should be starting,’” Hampton said. “It’s all about how you handle those situations. Losing the starting spot, that was my first time ever being benched. So it was the way I just challenged myself to come back and face adversity.”
Hampton’s interception wasn’t just redemption for himself.
Before Saturday, USC’s pass defense had fallen to the bottom half of the SEC following a string of bad games. When coach Steve Spurrier talked of defensive personnel changes last week, he specifically meant defensive backs. There were three new starters — more than half the Gamecocks’ secondary.
The coaches couldn’t ask for better results. USC made Allen miserable all day, allowing him to complete just 4 of 12 passes for 30 yards with one interception. USC’s pass defense now ranks fourth in the SEC with 202.7 yards allowed per game, shaving more than 30 off its season average.
A change of scenery helped. But, more than the backups getting their chance to shine, the personnel changes inspired former starters like Hampton to play better.
“I thought they performed real well,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “That was the first series Vic was in the game that he intercepts the ball. So hopefully we don’t have to bench them anymore, and they’ll play their assignment when they’re in there. As long as the bench is there, and they know that opportunity is there, then hopefully they’ll stay focused.”
The coaches won’t discard all their changes in the secondary.
Backup-turned-starting safety Chaz Elder’s four tackles were second-most on the team. He added a fumble recovery that tucked the blowout away early in the third quarter. Ward said Elder — a freshman — will likely start at Tennessee over Kadetrix Marcus, while boundary safety Brison Williams will return to his starting spot.
“He’s just athletic, and he can run,” Ward said of Elder. “He’s physical, got more range. So we probably should’ve gotten him on the field earlier than we did.”
Hampton was quick to point out his performance was imperfect. He said there were missed tackles, a few sloppy plays. He expects more from himself.
Then there was the interception return. Hampton knew he should have scored.
“Yeah, my teammates been getting on me about that one today,” Hampton said, finding the humor with himself. “So hopefully next time if I get an opportunity like that, I’ll just stay on the sideline and try to outrun everybody.”
Fortunately for Hampton, there will be a next time.