CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Playing basketball for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga means a little more to Dontay Hampton.
The former Chattanooga Arts & Sciences star passed up offers from several schools to walk-on with his hometown team, eventually earning a scholarship prior to the 2011-12 season.
John Shulman's seen his growth across four years in the Blue and Gold, and knows the point guard's contributions to the team go far beyond the seven points and two rebounds he averaged as a junior last year.
"He's our leader. He's our captain. He's the only one of our players that has any true, great experience with winning," Shulman said. "We've really missed him."
That much was evident as the Mocs stumbled to a 2-8 record during a rough first month of the season.
Hampton was forced to watch it all from the bench after a tearing the ACL in his right knee during a workout in July, putting his senior season in jeopardy.
As painful as the injury itself was, being a helpless bystander amidst UTC's struggles was worse.
"The Davidson game, I about died," Hampton said. "It was killing me because I could have helped my team. I just did my best to keep trying to encourage the guys."
Hampton's always been more of a "lead by example" kind of guy, so being a vocal leader and extra coach on the bench didn't come naturally.
"The guys have been coming to me and I've been doing everything I can to help teach them," Hampton said. "They've been calling me "Old Head" for the short term, but now hopefully I can get back out there and keep us rolling."
Hampton worked tirelessly in his rehab to make the happen as soon as possible.
With the help of assistant coach Casey Long, he attacked each step of his recovery process immediately after receiving clearance from doctors.
He was fully cleared for all activities last week and expects to make his season debut Thursday against The Citadel, a few weeks ahead of schedule.
"He was willing to take that risk," Shulman said of Hampton pushing his rehab. "Is it before the six-month period? Yes. But can he do it? Absolutely.
"Tay is funny because his dream has never been to play professional basketball. Tay's dream was to lead Chattanooga, and that's what he gets to do again."
In his absence, the Mocs' young roster was forced to grow up in a hurry.
True freshman guards Farad Cobb and Gee McGhee have played big minutes from the season's opening tip, picking up invaluable experience along the way.
Cobb has scored 30 points combined in the past two games, and the Mocs have found their footing while winning four of their last five.
And Hampton's return can only make them better.
"He knows what we want, he knows how we play, and he's not a chemistry killer," Shulman said. "He just needs to get in great shape and he needs to find a little trust in that leg."
Hampton knows that will likely be the biggest challenge in his battle back to full health. He believes he's close to 100-percent physically, and getting back on the court will take him the rest of the way.
"I just want to get out there, so I'm going to go with the flow," Hampton said. "I'm not worried about (the knee). I'm just going to play free and play for my team.
"If it's five minutes, if it's 20 minutes, whatever. I'm in shape and ready to go, so however many minutes I play I'll be fine."