What the Detroit Lions are getting in Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

Before the 2022 college football season, Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell was named the Big Ten Conference’s preseason defensive player of the year.

When the season ended, Campbell was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, the 29th consensus all-American in Iowa football history, and the Hawkeyes’ first Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker.

Campbell arrived in Iowa City as a wiry, 215-pound freshman, a three-star recruit from nearby Cedar Falls. Over four years, he built himself into a middle-linebacker machine who not only generated hype but then lived up to it with every thumping tackle.

Jack Campbell was a menacing presence at middle linebacker for the Hawkeyes as a starter the past two seasons. Iowa led the country in yards-per-play allowed (3.99) in 2022.

In a year of great defense in the Big Ten, Campbell was the face of it. Consistency was his hallmark. He would show up. He would play hurt. He would almost always make the most tackles on the team. And he would make big plays.

Two rivalry games stand out.

In 2021, in Week 2, ESPN’s “College GameDay” had made the trip to Ames for the first-ever top-10 showdown in the Iowa vs. Iowa State series. In what was finally supposed to be the Cyclones’ time to end a six-year losing streak, Campbell had other ideas … reading a sweep left to Breece Hall and picking up a loose ball and returning it for a backbreaking touchdown in Iowa’s eventual 27-10 win.

Then in 2022, in Week 11 in Minneapolis, Iowa needed to win to put itself in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten West title. The score was 10-10 in the fourth quarter, and Minnesota was owning the line of scrimmage. But with the Gophers inside Iowa’s 10-yard line with just over 5 minutes to go, Campbell popped loose a fumble from running back Mo Ibrahim, and teammate Deontae Craig recovered. After Iowa punted, Minnesota was driving again … but with just over 2 minutes left, Campbell intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 75 yards for an apparent touchdown – but officials ruled he had stepped out of bounds. Either way, the turnover set up Iowa’s winning points in a 13-10 decision.

Put simply, you can count on Jack Campbell to be there for your team in every way.

And that’s why the Detroit Lions jumped on Campbell in the first round (No. 18 overall) Thursday in the NFL Draft.

(Yes, that's Lions coach Dan Campbell falling in love with Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell.)

For the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa wound up with multiple top-18 picks in the same draft. Fellow defender Lukas Van Ness went No. 13 overall to the Green Bay Packers.

The positives

Despite Campbell’s massive size (6-4½, 251) he runs like a safety with the tackling power of a defensive end. He operates well in short space, as evidenced by his Combine times in the three-cone drill (6.74 seconds) and short shuttle (4.24) leading all linebackers, and he closes quickly. As you would expect from the nation’s best linebacker, he is a film-study warrior who speaks softly but has a natural ability to lead by example.

The concerns

There’s no doubt he’s sacrificed his body over the last two years at Iowa and has dealt with knee and elbow injuries. But really, the biggest concern at the next level is finding a good team fit for his unique size and skill set.

Chad Leistikow’s final thoughts

I tweeted this after the Minnesota game and still stand by it today. With all due respect to Larry Station, a two-time consensus all-American at linebacker for Iowa in the mid-1980s, Campbell is the best linebacker in Hawkeye football history. The postseason honors cemented that legacy.

Before Campbell, the last last first-round linebacker at Iowa was Chad Greenway (No. 17 overall) to the Minnesota Vikings in 2006. Campbell's selection surpassed linebacker Pat Angerer as a second-rounder by the Indianapolis Colts in 2010. (Station was an 11th-round pick in 1986.)

Campbell has the tools and mindset to be better than all of them at the NFL level.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.