Jelani Hamilton came to the University of Miami in 2012 as a prized four-star defensive line recruit out of storied Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, but with expectations high, his career stat line entering his fourth season reads: nine games, 10 tackles, one for loss — and three knee surgeries.
Hamilton’s knee issues have taken him from his time as a senior at St. Thomas, recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in his right knee as he began his UM career, to a pair of surgeries on a torn meniscus in his left knee in the ensuing seasons.
Heavily hindered through his first two campaigns, Hamilton entered the 2014 season with ample pressure to begin performing with eligibility dwindling. He was set to finally overcome the knee troubles, but ended up getting redshirted — a decision he wasn’t exactly on board with at first.
“I was young. I wasn’t really seeing the big picture the way I thought I should be, the way I thought it should look. I talked to my coaches a couple times and didn’t like it,” says Hamilton, a 6-5, 302-pound redshirt junior. “I went to Coach Golden with my parents. That’s when we had the talk … I didn’t see the big picture still. I was still mad, still angry.”
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But as the redshirt season opened up more time for him in the weight room, the strides and benefits began to prevail all the way to the point of earning the defense’s most improved player award for his work during spring drills.
“It helped me out a lot, helped me mature a little bit more,” he says.
Hamilton is now feeling renewed and competing for a spot at defensive end or defensive tackle with no pain in either knee and confidence in using his legs without hesitation when exploding off the line of scrimmage.
Hamilton has since stabilized his weight around 300 pounds, ideal to play the combination of 3-technique and 5-technique the coaches have set out for him in their defensive scheme.
In the weight room, he now maxes out on the bench press at 405 pounds — most among UM defensive linemen other than nose guards. He can lift 225 pounds in 29 times in a row — up significantly from the 18-20 rep range he used to be in. He’s squatting for the first time in three years, and is maxing out at 445 pounds.
He was lifting four times a week last season, which would be impossible otherwise if coaches had to get him game-ready for Saturdays, and this offseason went through the entire conditioning program for the first time.
“Finally being able to participate, I really realized how hard the work was and I took it on,” Hamilton says. “I was happy about it. I love to work hard with my teammates and my D-line.”
Working with the practice squad while redshirting, Hamilton improved on his technique going up against the likes of experienced offensive linemen Ereck Flowers, Jonathan Feliciano and Shane McDermott.
Now coaches have a plan in place for him to be effective on the field.
“I think the biggest areas he’s improved and biggest area he can help us right now is with that interior pass rush. He’s done a really nice job in camp rushing the passer from one of those interior spots,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said. “He’s a very good athlete for a big man. Now we take a guy who was probably an end in high school and kick him inside, and now you get yourself more athletic on the interior.”
A season away from the field also allowed Hamilton to find the approach he needed to maintain his body.
“Coming off surgery after surgery, I always didn’t take it seriously,” Hamilton said. “As soon as I came off of surgery, I was like, ‘Alright, let’s go back out there.’ I didn’t really take care of my body with the treatment, the rehab, icing my body down, stretching, all that.
“But being able to redshirt taught me I needed to do that to be a great athlete, to be a pro on the college level.”
The potential Hamilton showed in high school might finally be coming out at UM.