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September 25, 2013

Hampton aims for smarter play

Four weeks after his initial debut as South Carolina's starting punt returner against North Carolina, redshirt junior Victor Hampton is ready to make a second go at it Saturday at UCF. And the team's two-time Everyday Attitude Award winner says he couldn't be more fired up about returning to special teams.

"It's one of those things that I dream about; I keep dreaming about taking one back," said Hampton after practice Tuesday. "Ace (Sanders) was a good guy last year at punt return; I'm trying to make people forget him. I'm trying to make a big play for my team back there."

Perhaps the team's most talented player with the ball in his hands, Hampton is no stranger to making impact plays. The 5-foot-10, 202-pound cornerback tied for the team high last season with six pass breakups, snagged the game-winning interception against Tennessee, returned a blocked extra point for a two-point conversion at Florida and recorded the first sack of his career in the Outback Bowl.

But the injuries he suffered in the Thursday night season opener kept him from returning punts ever since, and it has taken him several weeks to climb back to 100 percent. The Gamecocks struggled to return punts without him, ranking 13th in the SEC with just 4.25 yards per return.

Hampton says he knew he would get another chance to be the full-time punt returner as soon as he got healthy, but noted that he has to play smart and avoid exposing himself to the kind of punishment he received against North Carolina.

"I'm an aggressive guy," he said. "It's a difference between being aggressive and being smart. But that was my first time doing punt returns for a whole game, so it was good game experience for me."

Hampton says his coaches have talked to him about when it's appropriate to return a punt and when it's best to settle for a fair catch. Hampton said while his mentality won't change, his decisions will.

"I'll still be aggressive going to get the ball, but I'll just be way more smarter with my decision making," Hampton said.

Hampton is also looking forward to squaring off this week with UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, whom South Carolina defensive backs coach Grady Brown called one of the best passers they will see all season.

"He's got a strong arm," said Hampton of Bortles, who ranks fifth in the nation in passer efficiency rating. "He can throw from hash to hash, from sideline to sideline, so on any given play as a cornerback or a safety you have to be ready to have the ball thrown you way."

Bortles, who earned AAC Offensive Player of the Week honors in UCF's victory over Penn State, makes quick decisions and can read defenses, Hampton said, adding that they will plan to confuse him by disguising their coverages. Hampton also praised Bortles' ability to make plays out of the pocket, saying that he expects the junior quarterback to scramble, which will increase the importance of sticking tight to UCF's receivers when the pocket breaks down.

"This is the type of game where you want to challenge yourself, see what type of coverage skill you have and see what type of ball skills you have," Hampton said.

"I'm praying I get a couple of balls this game, I don't get a lot." said the former four-star prospect out of Darlington High School, adding that he's both flattered and frustrated that quarterbacks don't throw his way much anymore.

"I'm a football player, I want to be active," Hampton said. "I want to see what type of plays I can make myself."

Hampton says he and the team aren't looking past UCF in what he calls a "sleeper game" Saturday at noon. Known as one of South Carolina's most vocal players, Hampton says he is urging his teammates to approach the game as if it's another SEC matchup.

"I just tell my guys 'put yourself in their shoes. If we had a No. 12 team coming in and we were 3-0 and we sold out all our tickets, how are we going to approach the game?'" Hampton said. Hampton said they will prepare for the Knights' best shot like they would any other team's, noting that South Carolina was tied 7-7 with Wofford in the fourth quarter last season.

"We don't have to go down there with our heads down," Hampton said. "We're going to go confident, and we're going to play South Carolina football."

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