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Pitt DB Damar Hamlin gets up to speed

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, 5:28 p.m.
Pitt defensive back Damar Hamlin intercepts a pass from Rice quarterback Jackson Tyner in the second quarter Saturday.
Pitt defensive back Damar Hamlin intercepts a pass from Rice quarterback Jackson Tyner in the second quarter Saturday.

Damar Hamlin had two thoughts when he snatched his first collegiate interception on the last play of the first half against Rice:

• Thank you, Pitt training staff.

• Let's make something happen.

Hamlin, a sophomore from Central Catholic, waited a long time before making an impact in the Pitt secondary. After appearing in three games at cornerback in 2016, Hamlin moved to free safety this season where he or Bricen Garner, a former Central teammate, often is matched with strong safety Jordan Whitehead.

Hamlin was slowed by an undisclosed injury this summer, missed the first two games but recorded 14 tackles and an interception in the next three.

His impactful efforts might offer closure: His comeback may be complete.

“My first thought (coming off the field after the pick) was all the rehab I was going through with my trainers and my strength coaches,” he said. “How far I came.”

Then, he remembered the conversation he had in the defensive huddle during Pitt's timeout before the play.

“We talked about if we get an interception, we're going to pitch it back,” he said.

After making the catch at the Pitt 15, Hamlin knew he wasn't running 85 yards. So, after 5 yards, he pitched back to cornerback Avonte Maddox, who could only gain 3 more.

For Hamlin, it feels good interacting with teammates for a cause (even if it doesn't always work).

Before training camp, while his teammates were working on the field without coaches, Hamlin spent most of his time in the trainers' room.

“Workouts and then rehab, classes and then more rehab,” he said. “Strength coaches were working me, working me, working me. I finally got my opportunity.”

He missed most of training camp in August, slowing his progress in the transition to safety. He watched plenty of video, but he said, “There's nothing like live reps. What you see on the sideline, it will be different when you're on the field.”

As the season approached, Hamlin started to feel fully recovered, but he was forced to use the first two weeks like his own personal camp. Finally, he received his chance when he recorded three tackles against Oklahoma State. He added seven against Georgia Tech and four Saturday.

He was on the field for Rice's only touchdown, a 70-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Austin Walter. It was a hard lesson, hopefully learned in time for the Syracuse game next Saturday, the first of seven ACC games that will define Pitt's season.

“They fit it into one of our windows,” Hamlin said. “My leverage was bad.”

Working with Garner feels like home to Hamlin.

“Even in high school, we helped each other,” Hamlin said “Now, we watch film together, complement each other. It's really up to the coaches how they do our rotation, but Bricen and I know we both have to be ready at any time.”

Outside linebacker Seun Idowu, who keeps an eye on players adjacent to, behind and front of him, said he believes Hamlin is getting comfortable in the defense.

“Damar is doing a lot of good things,” he said. “The big thing for him is get confident with your calls and pretty much after that everything he did was smooth.”

Hamlin has become a big part of the Pitt secondary that is suddenly making plays.

With three interceptions Saturday, Pitt has six in five games (all by five defensive backs), led by cornerback Dane Jackson's two. Hamlin, Garner, Maddox and Dennis Briggs have one each.

“We always talk about being the money team,” Jackson said.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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