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Posted on Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

From loaf to starter: Michigan's Will Campbell gets spotlight to show he's turned a corner

By Kyle Meinke


Will Campbell is lighter and more confident as he heads into what likely will be the first start of his career at Michigan.

File photo

NEW ORLEANS — The knock on Will Campbell has never been his size, or his talent.

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 Sugar Bowl matchup between Michigan and Virginia Tech create some interesting storylines. We’ve been covering them all for weeks. Check out our Mega Guide for a compilation of links to all Sugar Bowl-related stories on our site.
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.

Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.


Lorain Steelmen

Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 8:10 p.m.

I was very concerned when I heard that Heininger would not play, and that Campbell was going to start. I just don't feel confident that he will hold up. and that means VaTech will run on us. Its' possible that UM can win this one, but they will have to play at Nebraska or ohio levels to to pull it off....and it's been a LONG time since these kids played.


Wed, Jan 4, 2012 : 1:32 a.m.

I feel the same way- to date Campbell is just a chronic no show. I hope they have someone with heart to back him up in case he doesn't show up again. maybe Richard Ash.


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 5:54 p.m.

One missing bracket in a closing tag and the whole page goes kablooey. Please fix before the entire site is sucked into a vortex of boldface linkage.

Pete Cunningham

Wed, Jan 4, 2012 : 12:10 a.m.

It's been fixed. Thanks for noticing.


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 6:41 p.m.

Could be worse ... could be boldface italic! :-)


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 5:20 p.m.

Keep the pad level down and the motor level up, Will! :-) Texas is the current poster-child for under-performing teams loaded with recruiting talent. That said, what Robert Granville is true -- the ratings aren't perfect, but it doesn't mean they're not useful. On the whole I'd rather Michigan get four and five star talent rather than two and three. In fact, if Michigan and the Big 10 want to do better on the national stage then they have, they'll need to get that four and five star talent at key skill positions. Wisconsin lost last night mainly due to defense. LSU and USC showed how Oregon can be beat. It's not easy, but it can be done -- a dominating defensive line to penetrate and disrupt the plays and speed to contain the perimeters. The big question is how teams from up north can attract the top-tier talent, which is mostly located down south.


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 4:04 p.m.

This game just isn't the Seniors last game. This is the showcase for next yrs. Leaders. "Will" Campbell accept the challenge of being a leader....Being a leader isn't just Big Man On Campus. It takes character and earned respect. Campbell may have been the prima Donna in H.S.. Now he has that chance....take charge or fold

Robert Granville

Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 3:54 p.m.

Maybe next year we will have our 5 star DT. He was ranked #1 in the state of Michigan out of high school. If he can live up to that hype his senior season, Michigan will be in the running for the AFCA trophy. I mean that.... with our murderer's row schedule next year and returning offensive starters a national championship is not far fetched. We just need a competent D-line. It all starts with getting the production we expected from Campbell.


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 2:03 p.m.

This just goes to show how much the "5 star ratings means". MSU just beat SEC runner up Georgia in 3 overtimes. My home town team-Boise State- took apart the same Georgia team in this season's opener with mostly 2 and a few 3 star players ; while Georgia has mosty 4 and a few 5 star recruits. They did the same to Virigina Tech last year, et. et. year after year. Michigan currently has ten 4 star and one 5 star commitments but has slipped to 4th or 5th in the recruiting rankings for 2012. It's of little importance if they are 1st or 10th every year in recruiting. They'll have tons of talent. Chris Petterson at Boise state has shown year after year that recruiting kids with heart and then being a great coach on and off the field beats great recruiting. But there are only a few really great coaches in the country- and Michigan seems to have one. Go Blue

Robert Granville

Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 3:58 p.m.

It may show that ratings aren't perfect but you should give them more credit. Look at the oversigning schools and their success in the postseason. If you know college football, you know I'm talking about the SEC powers. You'll find nothing but 4 and 5 star talent down there. They run train for a reason. Also Michigan State has never been relevant and still isn't. Just because they have a senior class of overperforming 2 and 3 stars doesn't mean that they'll suddenly become nationally relevant and will keep turning low end talent into a competent team. Look at their incoming class.... still the same old passed over recruits that the rest of the big ten didn't want.


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 1:08 p.m.

This is a huge game for Campbell and the Michigan Dline going forward into next year! If Campbell steps to the plate and does anything but strike out it will be huge for him and the dline going into next year with 3 starters leaving. What a great chance for Will to get some great momentum going into next year with a big game tonight. If the speculation of Martin being double teamed all night is accurate then Campbell will have a lot of good chances to make game changing plays! I personally think he will step up and hit a home run. This moment has been what he has needed and I think he takes advantage of it! Go Blue!!!


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 1 p.m.

ok will five starts mean nothing. as hoke says "it all done on the field" show them you got it and next year you are going to be a beast.

Laurie Miholer

Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 12:38 p.m.

The confidence that Brady Hoke and Greg Mathison have been able to instill in Michigan's defense this season has paid off in spades. We can only hope that they are working that same 'magic' with Campbell. He definitely has the talent, today we'll find out if, like the rest of the team, he is "accountable." Go Blue!