As NFL Draft kicks off, Hamilton waits for his chance

Sam Chandler, Managing Editor

At the 2017 NFL Draft, Samford wide receiver Karel Hamilton is looking to become the third Bulldog selected in three years. | Photo by Sam Chandler


HOMEWOOD, Ala. — Karel Hamilton knew what he needed to do.

The jury of scouts eyeing him from 40 yards down field knew what they wanted to see—explosiveness, speed, acceleration. These coveted attributes are what had drawn them to Samford’s Seibert Stadium on a cool turned comfortable March morning.

So Hamilton, under the collective gaze of onlookers, dug his neon green cleats into the turf field and jackknifed his 6-foot-1 wide receiver frame into a sprinter’s stance, as if settling into an imaginary starting block. Head down, rump raised, he pulled his left hand off the ground and reached it behind his hamstring.

He took off.

His face tensed as his legs churned down the cone-lined straight.

Hamilton’s former teammate, James Bradberry, stood near the home sideline and surveyed the scene. He participated in Samford’s pro day last spring before the Carolina Panthers selected him in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

“Everybody’s been talking about if he’s fast enough or not,” Bradberry said. “He doesn’t need to worry about that.”

A chorus of clicking stopwatches welcomed Hamilton to the finish. The consensus was that he ran 4.59 seconds for the 40-yard dash. Fair or not, the numbers carry significant weight in determining his football future.

“That was probably the biggest question mark that he had coming into today, was actually how fast he would run in the 40,” Samford head football coach Chris Hatcher said afterward. “I think he answered those questions.”

He’ll find out this weekend.

The 2017 NFL Draft kicks off tonight in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and runs through Saturday. Hamilton, an Associated Press Football Championship Subdivision First Team All-American this past fall, is hoping to hear his name called in one of its seven rounds.

History suggests that Hamilton holds a slimmer chance of selection than his counterparts from the Football Bowl Subdivision. But that doesn’t deter him. Beating the odds is familiar territory for one of the nation’s best small-school wide receiver prospects.

‘Special’ Potential

Michael Pierce still remembers when Hamilton first arrived at Samford as a freshman in the summer of 2013. Pierce, a redshirt sophomore defensive lineman at the time, had transferred in from Tulane University in the spring of that same year.

He said the work ethic Hamilton brought with him from his Valrico, Florida, home stood out among his peers—and hinted at future success.

“Even in his first camp, man, we knew he was going to be something special,” Pierce said.

From the get-go, Hamilton proved his teammates correct. He led the Bulldogs with seven touchdowns and tallied more than 650 yards receiving in his first college season, earning a spot on the All-Southern Conference Freshman Team.

“He was going out there and making plays against us, and we were kind of seen as the veterans of the group,” said Bradberry, who routinely faced Hamilton in practice drills. “As soon as he got on this field from his freshman year, he had all the confidence in the world.”

Hamilton needed to post a strong performance at his March 9 pro day. He did. Scouts clocked his 40-yard dash at 4.59 seconds, a polished showing from a receiver whose speed has been questioned. | Photo by Sam Chandler


But Hamilton’s confidence shouldn’t be confused with cockiness, as there is a clear distinction between his underdog brand of self-belief and the type of arrogance that can fray a locker room. The roots of Hamilton’s self-assuredness can be traced back to his parents, Steve and Angeria Savory, and a high school coach, Justin Hickman. Hamilton said all three restored his confidence as a sophomore at Strawberry Crest High School after doubt surrounding his ability had sent it tanking.

“That’s where I started rising as a player again and rising to my full potential again,” said Hamilton, who had thrived in youth leagues since he started playing at age 7.

A reenergized sense of belief translated to a breakout 10-touchdown, 59-reception senior season at Strawberry Crest in 2012. Those numbers, however, failed to attract any high-profile suitors. The only three college offers Hamilton received were from FCS schools—Samford, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Coastal Carolina.

Samford expressed first interest, and Hamilton didn’t forget it. He rewarded then-head coach Pat Sullivan with his commitment to join the Bulldogs’ 2013 recruiting class.

“I just felt like Samford really saw my potential,” Hamilton said.

The decision paid off for both parties, as Hamilton’s production increased each year of his college career. He accumulated 877 yards receiving as a sophomore under Sullivan and 880 as a junior during Hatcher’s first season helming the program.

In Hatcher’s offense, which is predicated upon a rapid pace of execution and accurate delivery of the football to playmakers in space, Hamilton emerged as a reliable weapon his junior year. But as a senior, he became his team’s preeminent threat.

Coming of Age

Samford offensive coordinator Russ Callaway worked closely with Hamilton last spring to help him refine his route-running and pass-catching techniques. Although Hamilton had adjusted well to Hatcher’s new offense the previous fall, his position coach wanted him to better understand the intricacy of various routes.

Callaway said he wasn’t sure if his instruction ever got through to his burgeoning receiver, or if it simply entered one ear and exited the other.

Hamilton showed it stuck.

In a position meeting with Callaway and a cohort of his teammates prior to the 2016 season, Hamilton asked his coach if he could step in and offer advice to a younger player Callaway had been coaching up on route running.

The anecdote illustrates a trait that Callaway said came to define Hamilton’s senior season—leadership. He was named a team captain, and when he spoke up, others listened.

“If he’s tuned in and he’s locked in, the other 21 guys on the field are tuned in and locked in and seem to do a little bit better,” Callaway said.

Hamilton locking in helped unlock a Bulldog offense that finished the 2016 season ranked third in the country in passing offense. Quarterback Devlin Hodges threw for 340 yards per game on average. Hamilton usually reeled in about one third of them.

He ranked second in the FCS with 126.3 yards receiving per game and led the FCS with 10.1 receptions per game.

“When a ball is up, you know he’s going to catch it,” Hodges said.

That includes hauling in passes that even the rising redshirt junior quarterback admits he probably should not have attempted.

Trailing by 15 in the third quarter at Mississippi State University this past October, Hodges threaded a ball to Hamilton, who ran a short hitch route to the right sideline against a Cover 2 defense. Hamilton extended his lanky arms to snatch the ball, then palmed it with one hand while he used the other to keep his balance and turn up field. Forty yards later he reached the end zone, a Mississippi State defender left in his tracks.

“If there’s one play that sticks out to me about Karel, it’s that play,” Hodges said, “because I did something that you’re definitely not supposed to do, and then he turns it into a touchdown.”

Hamilton finished that game, which Samford lost 56-41, with 14 catches for a season-high 213 yards and two touchdowns. Five times this past season he recorded multiple touchdown outings.

“I knew we were going to put up big numbers,” Hamilton said of his prolific performance at Mississippi State. “You kind of feel it coming in, just how prepared you are for the game.”

Hamilton rewrote the record books during his four-year college career. He leaves Samford as its all-time leader in receptions (279) and receiving yards (3,803). | Photo courtesy of Samford Athletics


That same feeling pulsed through his frame in late January at the East-West Shrine Game. In front of a national audience, he seized his moment – twice. On the first play from scrimmage, Hamilton leaped over Temple University cornerback Nate Hairston to rip down a 37-yard reception along the left sideline. Three quarters later he made a similar grab, readjusting at the last second to sprawl out and retrieve an underthrown ball for a 24-yard gain.

“I think it’s just my competitive nature,” Hamilton said. “Whenever I see that ball in the air, I just feel like it’s mine. I’m not letting nobody else get that ball from me.”

There’s a reason why Hamilton was able to come down with his pair of highlight-reel receptions. Callaway calls it his “super-elite ball skills,” and they helped transform Hamilton from an overlooked recruit into one of the country’s FCS standouts.

“There are not many people in the world who play the game that have the ball skills and capability of tracking the football and just catching the ball in awkward positions,” Callaway said.

Hamilton is one of them.

That knack for making tough catches explains why 36 scouts from the NFL and the Canadian Football League congregated inside Seibert Stadium at his pro day. As one scout—who exchanged information for anonymity—put it, Hamilton’s “calling card is his hands.”

Those hands set school-record marks for receptions (279) and yards receiving (3,803) over the course of his Samford career.

“When I first got here, I was more of a 50-50 ball, deep-ball kind of guy,” Hamilton said. “I taught myself and I fought hard and I worked hard just to try to be an all-around guy, not just one dimensional.

Future Fate

Now, Hamilton is looking to bring those skills to an NFL roster.

History suggests he faces an uphill battle. Last April, only 20 FCS players were selected in the seven-round, 253-pick NFL Draft. According to a recent report published by the NCAA, that figure represented a mere 0.7 percent of the FCS player pool. Statistically, FCS draft hopefuls were about 10 times less likely than their FBS counterparts to hear their names called in 2016.

For Hamilton, however, there is a glimmer of hope. Two of the five non-FBS players picked in the first two rounds of the 2015 and 2016 drafts went to Samford. The San Francisco 49ers made cornerback Jaquiski Tartt the highest draft pick in school history when they selected him 46th overall in 2015. He was the first FCS player off the board.

Last year, the Panthers snagged Bradberry with the 62nd pick. He was the third FCS player selected behind North Dakota State University quarterback Carson Wentz and Eastern Kentucky University outside linebacker Noah Spence.

“One thing I found out was if you can play ball, they’ll let you play,” said Bradberry, who was rated the top rookie cornerback of the 2016 season by Pro Football Focus.

Bradberry and Hamilton have worked out together this offseason at Godspeed Elite Sports Academy in nearby Hoover. The site also serves as a training base for Arizona Cardinals wide receiver J.J. Nelson and Panthers quarterback Joe Webb, both of whom played collegiately for the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Hamilton said Bradberry has provided him with tips and insight during his draft preparation. After cutting his teeth against some of the league’s best receivers, Bradberry has offered his former teammate subtle route-running critiques that can make a pivotal difference against world class players: an extra step, a head fake, a hard break.

“He’s just trying to get me better and telling me what the coaches are going to say in the NFL,” Hamilton said. “It’s helping me a lot to become better every day.”

Scouts took a closer look at Hamilton after he wrapped up his March 9 pro day. In recent weeks, he has worked out for the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. | Photo by Sam Chandler


But guys like Bradberry can give Hamilton more than on-field advice. It was only one year ago that he was in Hamilton’s shoes, an FCS player looking for a shot at the pros. The key to making that transition, Bradberry said, is belief in one’s self.

“If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you’re pretty much not going to be able to compete at that level,” he said.

Bradberry saw that self-belief in Hamilton from his first practices at Samford. Pierce, the Tulane transfer, did too. In fact, Pierce said that Hamilton possesses many of the same qualities that have catapulted him to his current position. 

Pierce was not selected in last spring’s draft, but he became one of the few players who turned a rookie mini camp invitation into a 53-man roster spot. This past season, he totaled 28 tackles and two sacks as an unexpected force on the Baltimore Ravens defensive front.

“As long as you believe in yourself and you believe you’re one of the best and are willing to compete—if you have that drive and that determination —anything is possible,” Pierce said.

Realistically, Hamilton’s odds of getting drafted fall somewhere between those of Bradberry and Pierce, who received 12 free agent contract offers in the aftermath of the 2016 draft. Hamilton has worked out for the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in recent weeks.

Callaway, Samford’s offensive coordinator, said he was told by scouts prior to the 2016 season that Hamilton projected as a mid-round draft pick as long as he posted solid numbers.

Check that off the list. In terms of production, it would be difficult to find many wideouts who kept similar pace.

But the blip that has popped up with Hamilton from a scout’s vantage point concerns his speed. Uncertainty has loomed over his ability to separate from NFL defensive backs, which is why so much emphasis was placed on his 40-yard dash at pro day. Hamilton said he felt that his 4.59 clock time eased doubts.

If not, his 34-inch vertical jump and crisp practice routes at least gave scouts something to ponder. The ability to play special teams also factors to his advantage.

“I feel like I performed well,” Hamilton said after wrapping up his pro day. “I’ve been training ever since the all-star game—the East-West Shrine Game—and just came out here and gave it all I’ve got.”

But that’s business as usual for an athlete who has fought for every advance. It’s what he’s done for the past four seasons in a Samford jersey. It’s what he’s been doing in the leadup to the draft.

He attends morning classes Monday to Friday, works out for two to three hours each afternoon and interns in the evenings at Campus Recreation. Hamilton, a sport administration major, will walk this May at graduation. His long-term career goal is to work in athletics.

But first, he’d like to participate in the action. All he needs is a chance.

“I just want that opportunity, and I’m praying and hoping that they give me that opportunity,” Hamilton said. “I’m just going to go out there and show them what I can do.”

Follow Sam Chandler on Twitter @sam5k

1 comment

  1. Angeria Savory says:

    To God be the glory

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