DaeSean Hamilton doesn’t know when he was injured and neither do those closest to him.
But Hamilton’s high school coach Lou Sorrentino remembers exactly the last time he had his most versatile player at his disposal.
All that stood between Sorrentino’s Mountain View Wildcats and a quarterfinal playoff victory was 20 yards and a stingy, determined Potomac defense. Sorrentino had a play call ready for the third-and-20. Chuck it deep. Hamilton would go get it and his Wildcats, leading 14-13, would be able to run out the clock and advance to Virginia’s Northwest Region semifinals in November 2012.
“We threw one up to him and he went up and got it,” Sorrentino said. “And he landed kind of awkwardly.”
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The first down was also the final play of Hamilton’s high school career.
Hamilton, who suffered a broken collarbone on the play, would have to wait another 19 months before he could catch another pass in a game. When he did, they came from fellow Virginia product Christian Hackenberg who completed 11 of them for 165 yards to Hamilton in Dublin, Ireland last month where Hamilton shined as Penn State’s breakout star in a 26-24 win over Central Florida.
“I feel like I finally got my football legs back,” Hamilton said Tuesday. “UCF, I was just getting back in the swing of things from being out for a whole year, I’m finally back and healthy again.”
His results three games into his career back that up. Hamilton leads Penn State (3-0, 1-0) with 26 catches and is second to Geno Lewis with 337 yards.
Hamilton’s output hasn’t come as a surprise to any of his teammates. After all, they watched him labor away, most of the time with a cast, brace or some type of protective device on his left wrist, all last season.
“He’s a very gifted kid,” senior running back Bill Belton said. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast and I don’t think anyone understood how much work he put in when he first got here. All the credit goes to him. He went out there each day and put the work in.”
It was a troubled, at times bizarre, period for Hamilton. He recovered from his collarbone injury and was involved in a minor car accident shortly before his graduation. He got to Penn State in late June and immediately began working with Hackenberg and former Penn State wideout Allen Robinson in summer throwing sessions.
Hamilton had some pain in his left wrist, however and in July, he failed his physical before training camp. Team doctors discovered the source of the pain — a broken scaphoid bone in Hamilton’s wrist. It required immediate surgery to remove dead bone and Hamilton was shut down as of July 12. He used his redshirt year as a result.
Even now, Hamilton can’t recall how he was hurt. He suspects it happened early in his senior football season as he played with pain in the wrist all year. It didn’t stop him from hauling in 64 catches for 1,073 and 10 touchdowns as a senior. His surgery didn’t stop Hamilton from keeping his mind toward the future.
So he went to work. Hamilton spent his weekday mornings and afternoons running the stadium steps at Beaver Stadium — usually with a large, bulky cast on his left forearm — with former strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald.
He believes he’s as fast as he’s ever been as a result.
Meanwhile, he immersed himself in his playbook and watched Robinson set records in his final season. Hamilton wasn’t activated — given the OK by team doctors to start participating fully again — until two days before the Blue-White game.
“I just took mental reps, learned the playbook as much as all the other guys on the team were learning the playbook,” Hamilton said. “And basically I just tried to learn as much mentally without implementing the physical part because I was not able to actually practice yet.”
Sorrentino isn’t surprised by Hamilton’s success, despite having to wait. Sorrentino knew him to be one of the more disciplined players he’s coached.
Hamilton’s father Johnie served in the Marine Corps and was stationed in Okinawa, Japan where DaeSean was born.
“His upbringing, I mean, as a coach, boy, those are the easy ones,” Sorrentino said. “The guy’s super talented. He’s smart. We’re multiple offensively and he knew all of our positions and that’s one of the things he said. When he couldn’t work out fully (at Penn State), because I asked him a little bit about Coach O’Brien’s system and Coach Franklin’s system and he said, ‘Well, I learned this. I learned that.’ He’s going to pick up the concepts really, really easy.”
When James Franklin first met Hamilton, the young wideout’s intelligence level was evident.
Of course, so were Hamilton’s tattoos — they run in full sleeves down both of his arms — and his wild, flat-top hairdo.
“(He’s) very sharp. He’s very confident,” Franklin said. “He’s really kind of his own man which I really kind of appreciate. He’s got a probably little bit different personality and different style and he owns that and I like that about him.”
Hamilton has been a threat from multiple spots, too. He’s lined up split out where he’s run intermediate and deep routes. He’s positions himself in the slot and has been a primary option on bubble screens. He’s also served as the set-up man for counterpart Lewis on similar plays, often throwing the first block to seal off a running lane for Lewis.
“Some guys learn by the playbook and watching film,” Franklin said. “Some guys need to actually go out and do it on the field. He was able to learn it without actually coming out and doing it on the field physically.”
And while he was forced to wait to make his Penn State debut, Hamilton was exposed to college football early enough.
Sorrentino coached Penn State’s all-time receptions leader Deon Butler at C.D. Hylton and had Butler pay a visit to a few Mountain View practices when Hamilton was an underclassmen. Butler, who walked on at Penn State as a defensive back, took a cerebral approach to the game and was known as a film room rat during his time as a Nittany Lion.
The ability to think a few steps ahead of defenders is a trait Sorrentino said Butler and Hamilton share.
“There are a lot of similarities between them,” Sorrentino said. “With how well Ham’s been doing up there it’s brought some memories back and I got to touch base with Deon again but I’ve been in this thing over 30 years and two really great kids. The fact that these guys can really play make it extra special. And in the right way.”
Butler leads all Penn State players with 179 career receptions.
Although only a quarter of the season has been played, Hamilton is on pace to shatter the numbers Butler posted in his first season when he caught 37 passes. If he keeps producing at his current pace in a pass-heavy offense, Hamilton would finish with 96 catches in 12 games.
He’s not ready to get ahead of himself, however.
“I like to think the sky is the limit for me just like any other athlete in the nation,” Hamilton said. “I don’t necessarily set an expectation for myself. Never get satisfied. I always expect myself to do better than what I’ve done in prior games. I’ve been pleased, but I always know there’s room for improvement no matter what.”
Notes: Senior guard Miles Dieffenbach was in pads for Penn State’s Wednesday practice though it is not clear whether or not he was involved in the full session. The majority of the practice was not open to reporters. Dieffenbach suffered a knee injury in March and said in the summer that he was targeting a late-season return. Franklin did not clarify Dieffenbach’s status only saying that “he’s doing great.” ... Franklin said he will use walk-on quarterback D.J. Crook in mop-up duty if the situation arises on Saturday against UMass and that the team will redshirt true freshman Trace McSorley who is listed as the No. 2 quarterback. ... The only way Penn State will use McSorley is if they need him to “win the game,” Franklin said.