April 25, 2012
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, IL - On the eve of the National Football League draft, Saluki running back Jewel Hampton is back home in Indianapolis, where he will eagerly watch the three-day event unfold on ESPN with his family.
Hampton, who rushed for 1,121 yards and 17 touchdowns in his only season at Southern Illinois, said he's been told he could be picked anywhere from the late third to the late seventh round, or he could be signed afterward as a priority free agent. I asked him to predict what his reaction will be if his name gets called during the draft.
"I think I'll just sit there and smile in disbelief," Hampton said. "I've been waiting so long to see my dream come true, and if it comes, I'll just enjoy that moment with my mom and dad."
As a position group, running backs have been devalued by the NFL in recent years, as pro football has evolved into a more pass-happy game. Due to the punishment they take, the average career of a running back in the league is just three years.
In 2011, 24 running backs were selected in the draft, but only one was picked in the first round. The same is expected this year, as only Alabama's Trent Richardson is guaranteed to go in round one.
Hampton's draft status is uncertain because of his limited body of work in college. He was out most of two seasons at Iowa with knee injuries. His 2011 season at Southern was critical for his pro aspirations, because he proved he could stay healthy for an entire year.
At 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds, Hampton has the size NFL scouts are looking for. At the NFL Combine, he ranked among the top running backs in the bench press with 25 reps. During interviews, personnel people said they were impressed with his tape at SIU.
"A lot of teams said I run angry," Hampton said. "They say my running style is like (Baltimore's) Ray Rice, and that I run hard and fight for yards."
Hampton didn't run at the Combine because of lingering pain from a nagging ankle bruise, but he turned on the jets for scouts during an on-campus pro day in late March, running a 4.47 and 4.50.
Although he could have returned for one more season at Southern, Hampton is certain he made the right move to turn pro, and he appreciates the support he's received from SIU's coaching staff.
"Coach (Dale) Lennon has been on my side throughout the whole situation," he said. "He's been there with an open shoulder for me and backed me up like a father figure would."
Hampton said he wouldn't change a thing about his decision to transfer and play for the Salukis.
"Saluki fans opened up their arms to me," he said. "I feel like I had a great experience. The program welcomed me into their home. Without them giving me this opportunity, I wouldn't have this chance."