De'Vondre Campbell | LB | Junior | 6'5" 241 lbs. G TK Solo TFL SK FF PBU 13 41 27 3 0 1 1
Last fall at TCF Bank Stadium, San Jose State receiver Chandler Jones caught a 20-yard pass, broke Brock Vereen's attempt at a tackle and made a quick stutter-step to elude linebacker Aaron Hill. As Jones ran upfield, Gopher linebacker De'Vondre Campbell gained on Jones and dove at the receiver, knocking the ball loose, giving the Gophers a defensive turnover inside their own red zone.
It's the kind of play Gopher fans hope to see Campbell make this year once the Big Ten schedule kicks into gear.
Campbell, entering his junior year, figures to be an integral part of the Gopher defense at outside linebacker in 2014. Coming from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, he was quite raw and learned quickly that he would have to bulk up to play linebacker and defend the run in the Big Ten. He admitted as much to FSN's Phil Ervin, singling out last year's 23-7 loss to Iowa.
"I was struggling that game," Campbell said to Ervin. "That's when I knew, come the offseason, I was gonna have to have a big offseason, put on a lot of weight."
Campbell entered fall camp weighing 239 pounds, up from 225 pounds last year and 30 pounds total since he left community college. That puts him at the same weight as starting middle linebacker Damien Wilson.
"The Iowa game is when I realized I needed to gain at least another 15-20 pounds," Campbell told Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press. "They were some big boys. I think I'm going to be ready this year. Iowa, Wisconsin, anybody - I'm going to be ready."
Added weight or not, Campbell was already easy to spot on the football field. He's 6-foot, 5-inches tall and has the speed that would have won him a high school state championship in the 200 meter sprint had he been a Minnesotan. How fast is Campbell? At the Florida high school state championships in 2011, he placed seventh in the 200 meter sprint, losing to some guy named Sammy Watkins (race video).
Yes, that Sammy Watkins. Fourth overall pick in the NFL Draft Sammy Watkins. The Sammy Watkins who routinely did things like this for Clemson:
Now, Campbell doesn't have Watkins's speed obviously, but to be mentioned even in the same category shows his raw athleticism. Much like the player we profiled on Saturday, Campbell has raw athleticism that is hard to ignore, especially at Campbell's height. The onus now is on the coaching staff to provide Campbell with the instruction he needs to become more than just a solid contributor.
Campbell, who had other BCS offers and had committed to Tennessee before their entire coaching staff was fired, obviously needs to improve in the run game. Last year, he was pushed around early and ended up rotating into the game on passing downs. The Gophers need Campbell to step into a more substantial role this year and it's an opportunity Campbell is ready to seize.
"I feel a lot more comfortable because last year I was a lot more timid," Campbell told the StarTribune's Joe Christensen this month. "Because of my weight, I wasn't comfortable playing at that weight. But now that I've got my weight up, I can actually play how I want to play, be more of a downhill player, taking on fullbacks, linemen."
Last year, he said the coaching staff didn't promise him a starting job and that he knew he would need to earn playing time.
"I know I'm raw; I try to work on it," Campbell told Christensen in an article last fall. "The main thing I know I struggle in is the run game. So I try to approach every day and get better and better at the little things."
Gophers coach Jerry Kill has compared Campbell to that of senior tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who came to the Gophers as a high school tight end not knowing where to stand on defense. Hageman worked to become a second round NFL draft pick. Campbell has the potential to someday make that jump as well. Expecting that in 2014 alone is bit too optimistic, but if Campbell has truly bulked up and readied himself for the conference slate, he will be ready to ascend from a rotational player to a defensive standout.
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Elliot Mann is a Minnesota-based writer who contributes to The Daily Gopher. Follow his never-ending search for a bottle of Diet Coke with his name on it at twitter.com/elliotmann.