April 7, 2015
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Taquan Mizzell came to the University of Virginia in 2013 as a heralded football recruit from a large high school, Bayside, in Virginia Beach.
Daniel Hamm arrived at UVa that same summer as a little-known walk-on from a small high school, Fort Chiswell, in Southwest Virginia.
The Cavaliers’ top two rushers in 2014, Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd, were fifth-year seniors, and Mizzell, nicknamed “Smoke,” figures to see his role grow significantly this fall. Still, don’t assume he’ll automatically be the starting tailback Sept. 5 when Virginia opens the season at UCLA.
Asked about Hamm after a recent practice, UVa’s new running backs coach, Chris Beatty, answered with enthusiasm.
“He’s been our best back,” Beatty said. “He’s been the most consistent back so far through camp. He’s pushing for every rep. He’s one of those guys that is nothing flashy but is going to always do exactly what you coach them to do. And sometimes that’s really good, and sometimes you wish he could do a little more, but I’m really, really happy with his progress.
“He’s not going to dance. He’s going to get downhill, and the way you coach it in the room is exactly how he’s going to run it on the field. I couldn’t be happier with where he is, but we all got a long way to go at this stage.”
The 5-10, 190-pound Hamm has played for the Wahoos in each of the past two seasons, yet he’ll be classified as a redshirt sophomore in the fall. That’s because he appeared in only two games in 2013 before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. He applied for and received a hardship waiver that gave him another year of eligibility.
“It is a little weird, but it’s definitely a good thing,” Hamm said. “I take it as a blessing. I think it was a good thing for me to get that year back, get a little bit of experience under my belt and come back and play last year, do what I can and be ready to go this year and have three more years.”
His college debut ranks among the most memorable by a Cavalier. After sitting out Virginia’s first two games in 2013, he went into the third, against VMI, as the No. 2 tailback because of injuries to Shepherd and Mizzell.
Hamm, who’s from Wytheville, seized the opportunity. He rushed 21 times for 136 yards and two touchdowns Sept. 22, 2013, in a 49-0 win over VMI at Scott Stadium.
“He’s kind of labeled himself as a downhill guy who sees the [hole] and hits it fast,” then-UVa offensive guard Luke Bowanko said after the game.
In a practice before the VMI game, however, Hamm had hurt his shoulder, and the injury worsened a week later against Pittsburgh, where he carried two times for 5 yards. That was the final appearance of 2013 for Hamm, who had shoulder surgery after the season.
In 2014, when Parks and Shepherd combined for 273 carries and Mizzell had another 64, Hamm was used primarily on special teams. He finished the season with 17 carries for 75 yards and one TD. But with Parks and Shepherd leaving, Hamm knew the returning tailbacks would have opportunities for more playing time. That group also includes Jordan Ellis and LaChaston Smith.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity to show really what we’re working with,” Hamm said, “a chance for Smoke to step into a bigger role, myself to step into a bigger role, and some of these guys that haven’t played as much, just to get out and do what we haven’t been able to do yet.”
Hamm isn’t the only member of his family to display athletic prowess. His brothers are former college basketball players, his sister played hoops at Emory and Henry College, and his mother played lacrosse at Roanoke College.
At Fort Chiswell, Hamm was a three-sport star, and his schedule at UVa is similarly busy. In addition to playing football, Hamm competes in the triple jump and the long jump for Virginia’s track and field team.
“It takes a special person to be a two-sport athlete in college,” said Bryan Fetzer, UVa’s director of track and field/cross country.
“He has to have the right focus and right determination. When we recruited Daniel to begin with, you knew there was something a little special about him. He’s got the right mindset to be great. You talk about somebody that just puts the time in and works and does things efficiently.”
Because of his shoulder injury, Hamm did not compete in track as a UVa freshman, but he probably would have redshirted anyway in 2013-14, according to Fetzer.
“Our whole thing was, `We know how good you’re going to be in track. You don’t have to prove to us anything. Let’s get you situated from a football standpoint and get through things,’ ” Fetzer recalled, “and then the shoulder injury happened. So he really didn’t have a chance to do anything.”
After the 2014 football season ended, Hamm began training with the track team. He competed in the triple jump at four indoor meets this winter, and also in the long jump at one of them. His triple jump of 47 feet, 7.25 inches during the indoor was the fifth-longest by a freshman in UVa history.
“It didn’t end as well as I would like,” said Hamm, who placed 14th in the triple jump at the ACC indoor meet, “but there was definitely progress. I was kind of restarting, because I hadn’t done it since high school.”
The ACC is loaded with talented triple jumpers, Fetzer said, and competing against them was an “eye-opening experience” for Hamm.
“Although he was one of the best high school triple jumpers in the country, there’s a big difference between a great high school athlete and being a great college athlete,” Fetzer said. “Now he knows what he’s got to do going forward. We’ll get him back after spring ball’s done, and he’ll get a chance to compete a little bit [outdoors]. I’m excited. His future’s definitely bright.”
Fetzer noted that Tiki Barber excelled as a jumper during his career at UVa, and David Wilson did the same at Virginia Tech. Other running backs of note who also were college track stars include Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson and Marshawn Lynch.
“The triple jump and the long jump take a lot of explosion,” said Fetzer, who has several football players in his program. “You have to be explosive to do that, which I think also is a good thing for a running back. You have to be able to hit the hole and do things.”
Hamm, also a standout defensive back at Fort Chiswell, played fullback on offense until his senior year, when he took over at tailback and rushed for 1,902 yards and 20 touchdowns. That piqued the interest of Virginia head coach Mike London and his staff. The Cavaliers’ offensive line coach then was Scott Wachenheim, whose recruiting territory included Southwest Virginia.
Wachenheim, now the head coach at VMI, invited Hamm to walk on at UVa.
“Coach Wachenheim said that if I came here, worked hard enough and did what I was supposed to do, he thought I’d be able to earn a scholarship within the first couple years,” Hamm recalled, “and it turned out what he was telling me was true.”
To his and his family’s delight, Hamm received the good news last summer. “We had been believing that God was going to bless me with that scholarship,” he said, “and it finally happened.”
Beatty came to UVa from Wisconsin, where he coached the wide receivers in 2013 and ’14. He has experience working with former walk-ons, including Jared Abbrederis, who became one of the Badgers’ all-time leading receivers and now plays for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
“Those guys have got a little chip on their shoulder,” Beatty said, and Hamm is no different.
“I think he’s got a little chip that he wants to prove he can play,” Beatty said, “and I think those things help, there’s no question.”
Fetzer’s coaching responsibilities make it difficult for him attend football practices, but he wasn’t surprised this week to learn Hamm was moving up the depth chart at tailback.
“Given the opportunity, he’s going to make the most of it,” Fetzer said.