Meet Jack Campbell, a large linebacker with a large opportunity on Iowa football team
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa has been searching for an anchor in the middle of its defense since Josey Jewell headed to the NFL after the 2017 season.
Amani Jones, Jack Hockaday, Kristian Welch and Dillon Doyle have all started games at middle linebacker in the two years since, with mixed success.
Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker is turning to sophomore Jack Campbell this year, meaning, if all goes well, there could be stability at that position for the next three (or even four) seasons.
Campbell played in 11 games as a true freshman, making five tackles, four of them in a victory over Purdue. And it is against those Boilermakers that Campbell will get his first chance to show his command of the Hawkeye defense in the Oct. 24 season opener.
Fans will certainly notice Campbell’s physical growth. He’s up to 6-foot-5, 243 pounds. Parker and linebackers coach Seth Wallace both spent time at their news conferences last week marveling at the size and agility of athletes like Campbell.
“I don’t really know if it helps me,” Campbell said, trying to downplay the 25 pounds he’s added. “I’m a little bit heavier than a typical linebacker and a little taller. I feel like I cover ground real well.
“At the end of the day, it’s just about how much effort I give and my attitude coming into the building each day.”
It will help Campbell that he is paired at linebacker with senior Nick Niemann. The two have formed a close bond, Wallace said, constantly exchanging notes in the meeting room during the quick ramp-up to a delayed, nine-game Big Ten Conference season.
Campbell said he’s most intent on understanding the “why” behind Iowa’s defensive philosophy. It’s his job to implement the “how,” getting his teammates lined up properly to defend the play that’s coming.
“Mentally, the game is getting a little bit slower for me. We’re trying to see things sooner,” Campbell said.
Physically, there’s little question that Campbell is a potential star in major-college football. He grew up in Cedar Falls rooting for Northern Iowa, where his father, Dave, once played on the offensive line.
Jack Campbell gravitated to the other side of the ball, becoming a record-setting linebacker at Cedar Falls High School, where football has long been king. He had 111 tackles as a junior, and topped that with an amazing 168 as a senior, when the Tigers made it to the state championship game.
But Campbell was also part of a basketball renaissance at his high school, where he was so popular that he was named homecoming king. He was an undersized but tenacious starting center on back-to-back state champions for coach Ryan Schultz.
“He had a real passion for basketball, too. Football was definitely his first love, but basketball wasn’t just kind of a tool for him to stay in shape, the way it can be for some guys,” Schultz said of Campbell.
“He was just one of those guys that elevated everything in practice, never takes a day off and it just becomes infectious with our team.”
Campbell is soft-spoken and prefers to let others get the accolades, Schultz said. But his hard-nosed approach was just what the Tiger basketball team needed.
One example: As a junior, Campbell drew a foul and calmly knocked down a pair of free throws to propel Cedar Falls past West Des Moines Valley in the state semifinals, setting up the first championship.
Another: In a game at Cedar Rapids Xavier in his senior season, Campbell departed in the first half after his head was split open. Schultz assumed his center was through for the evening, only to look up in the second half to see Campbell emerge from the locker room with a huge bandage wrapped around his head and a determination to lead his team to victory. Campbell made 12 of 13 shots. The Tigers won by 11 points.
Schultz said Division I college basketball coaches have since told him that Campbell could have played that sport in a league like the Missouri Valley Conference. But no one was surprised when he chose football. Or that he is doing so at the highest level.
You knew he was probably going to go to a bigger school (than UNI) for football,” Schultz said. “It was too good of an opportunity for him to pass up.
“The physical skill and the athleticism aside, he’s just got the mental approach and the drive that it takes.”
Campbell got to Iowa and impressed the coaches there enough to earn immediate playing time. He spent the offseason bulking up and then watching as Doyle transferred to Baylor. Starting linebacker Djimon Colbert decided to sit this season out over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suddenly, Campbell was the man in the middle for the Hawkeyes.
“It never really set off urgency,” Campbell said of the absence of Doyle and Colbert. “We were all competing for a spot and preparing to be in there.”
Campbell is more comfortable at the “Mike” linebacker position because it puts him closer to the line of scrimmage. Wallace likes him there as well because the arrangement plays to the strengths of both Campbell and Niemann.
“There’s a little bit of difference between the athleticism and maybe some of the coverage knowledge,” Wallace said of his two starting linebackers. “The Mike doesn’t get in space as much. The Mike doesn’t have to run as hard. In some cases, the Mike doesn’t have to take the back out of the backfield. I just think Nick’s a little more advanced.”
Now, it’s up to Campbell to make advances of his own. If he does, Iowa may emerge from this season with its defensive leader of the future.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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