Opinion: From loaf to starter: Michigan's Will Campbell gets spotlight to show he's turned a corner
The defensive lineman has been a gifted player since his youth in Detroit, always bigger and more dominant than the guy across from him. He drew consensus five-star ratings from recruiting experts, and landed in Ann Arbor as the Michigan football team's most heralded recruit in years.
Campbell hasn't come close to fulfilling any of that potential, and it's because of his head, and maybe his heart.
Now, after three mostly disappointing seasons, he isn't just going to play consistent snaps for the first time in his career.
Campbell is expected to be thrust into his first starting assignment tonight because of a foot injury to defensive tackle Will Heininger, and it will come in the program's highest-profile game in five years, a Sugar Bowl matchup against Virginia Tech (8:30 p.m., ESPN).
Is he ready?
He better be. The Wolverines' chances of earning their first BCS win since 2000 will rise or fall with his play against the Hokies.The 6-foot-5, 318-pound junior has drawn criticism throughout his career for loafing, for his weight, for his focus, for his heart. It's been justified. He says as much.
“I would probably say myself," Campbell said last week, when asked what was the biggest thing holding him back. "I mean, it’s the truth. I’ll always tell the truth, so it’s not hard to admit.
“That’s what they preach to me the most. I can’t keep (loafing). Some plays, I play like an All-American. The next play, I look like an average D-III tackle.”
Fellow defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said Campbell came to Michigan with an ego problem.
"When he first got here, he had a little bit of an ego about him, with the five-star and all that stuff," the senior said. "That happens because of the high school hype that people get because of the media and stuff like that."
Riding the pine, though, has a way of humbling even the proudest players.
Campbell has spent most of his career buried on the bench as one of the team's biggest underperformers. He finally played a bit role in the rotation this year as a junior, appearing in all 12 games and recording 11 tackles and two sacks.
But with Heininger out of the equation in the past week and no experience behind him, Campbell has become the team's only real option at that spot. He's been at the center of attention, commanding constant oversight from position coach Jerry Montgomery, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and even head coach Brady Hoke.
Michigan traveled to New Orleans with 110 players, yet defensive end Craig Roh said Hoke acted as Campbell's personal coach this week because of how much individual attention he paid the lineman.
Van Bergen said Campbell is the most scrutinized player on the team.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” Campbell said. “If you mess up, everybody’s going to say it. If you do something good, the other three coaches are going to find something you did wrong.”
By all accounts, though, he's put aside his ego and responded well to being put on a pedestal.
"He's actually really humbled himself out, and he takes coaching just as well as anybody else on the team -- and he probably is criticized more than anybody else on the team," Van Bergen said. "He takes it very well and uses it as motivation and you're starting to see it show up more and more."
Everyone sees growth in Campbell, but they've also said that before, dating to the preseason, when Hoke lauded Campbell for losing weight and getting his head in the right place.
Yet, he's been a role player, at best, this year.
Against Virginia Tech, the Wolverines will need much more than that.
The Hokies feature the ACC's player of the year, junior tailback David Wilson, in their backfield. He's gained 1,627 yards this year and is projected to be an early-round draft choice if he declares early for the NFL.
Virginia Tech also has quarterback Logan Thomas, who is a stout 6-foot-6, 254 pounds and has drawn comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for his physique. He often rushes up the middle and is expected to challenge tackles Mike Martin and Campbell.
"There's just more to hit," Roh joked. "So, I guess you just hit it harder."
Thomas also has been very effective in the passing game, and he's throwing to one of the biggest receivers corps in the country. Their top four receivers are at least 6-foot-2.
No starter in Michigan's secondary is taller than 6-foot.
Hoke said the best way to defend against the pass will be to pressure Thomas. That starts up front.
Virginia Tech surely will attempt to double-team all-Big Ten tackle Mike Martin, which means the onus will be on Campbell to beat his one-on-one coverage.
Nothing like being thrown into the fire.
One concern is Campbell's stamina. He's acknowledged he was overweight and out of shape in the past, but he's slimmed down from 338 when the coaching staff took over 12 months ago to 315 pounds this week.
“It’s not that hard, if Coach Hoke’s in your ear telling you if you don’t do it, the worst is going to happen,” Campbell said. “I’d rather just stay low and keep my weight down.
“After I lost the weight, I felt how good it felt to move and be able to run much better than I ever had before. So, I decided to keep it (off). I feel like I can run for days. I just feel a lot better, more stamina every day.” The Wolverines don't need him to run for days. They need him to run for one day, and that day is today.
Ready or not, here he comes.