Gophers football coach Jerry Kill said almost every visitor to preseason practice this year — from fans to scouts to Big Ten analysts — had the same question: “Who’s No. 26?” ¶ All eyes were drawn to redshirt sophomore De’Vondre Campbell, who is taller than most linebackers at 6-5, and faster than almost everyone.
How fast? In 2011, Campbell finished seventh in the 200-meter dash at the Florida state high school track meet. His time (22.03 seconds) would have won that year’s Minnesota big-school state championship.
Kill compares Campbell to Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, in terms of raw athletic ability and NFL potential. Campbell is far from a finished product, but he made eight tackles in last Saturday’s victory at New Mexico State to give him 11 in two games this year.
The Gophers plucked Campbell out of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College this February after he strongly considered offers from Tennessee, Texas and Kansas State.
“He’s a tremendous kid, he has a tremendous work ethic,” Kill said. “We’re fortunate we’ve got him for three years.”
Campbell kept pretty quiet when he first got to the Minnesota campus this summer, but his personality is starting to emerge. His Twitter handle is @Came_along_way, and he’s not shy about expressing his desire to prove naysayers wrong.
On Tuesday, he tweeted, “Everybody been sleeping on my football ability since Cypress days they better wake up and realize I do this.”
Campbell played for a struggling football program at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, Fla. His coach, Mike Thornton, put him at defensive end. Campbell didn’t receive any Division-I scholarship offers and didn’t get his junior college offer until a Hutchinson coach watched him play in a local all-star game.
In that game, Campbell teamed with Derrick Wells, a defensive back from Lehigh Acres, Fla., who headed directly to the Gophers.
“I played against a lot of good players in high school, some I felt I was actually better than,” Campbell said. “But I kind of felt it was just the school that I went to. We didn’t get a lot of recognition, so it’s kind of hard to get recruited. It made me hungry because I knew how good I really was.”
Thornton, who has since become the coach at Tampa Riverview High School, said Campbell had to go the junior college route because of grades.
“He was always a pleasure to be around,” Thornton said. “We never had any issues with his attitude or coachability. What happened with him was exactly what I thought would happen. A big-time junior college found him, and he wound up in a big-time conference.”
Campbell redshirted his freshman year at Hutchinson after suffering a concussion. One of his good friends and teammates that year was wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who transferred to Tennessee in 2012 before becoming a first-round pick for the Vikings.
Last year, Campbell was the one with his pick of Division-I offers after making 83 tackles. The same Hutchinson coach who recruited Campbell out of high school, Brandon Staley, had left to join Derek Dooley’s staff at Tennessee.
Campbell gave the Vols a verbal commitment, but backed out after the school fired Dooley and his entire staff. Various reports later had Campbell committing to Texas and then Kansas State, so it was quite a surprise on National Signing Day (Feb. 6), when Campbell signed to play for the Gophers.
“I thought I was going to go to K-State, but Coach Kill and [Gophers linebackers coach Bill] Miller were honest with me from Day 1,” Campbell said. “[Coaches from other schools] fed me all the hype, like, ‘You’re coming in, you’re going to start.’
“Coach Kill and Coach Miller never said I was going to start. They said I was going to have to work my way up, and that’s what I wanted. I don’t want anything to be easy because nothing is easy in life.”
Campbell said he played last season at 210 pounds, but now that he’s eating at Minnesota’s training table, he has grown to 225. His goal is to weigh 240-245 by the start of spring practice.
He’s already a good open-field tackler, with the speed to cover plenty of ground, and the extra weight should help him shed blockers.
“I know I’m raw,” Campbell said. “I try to work on it. The main thing I know I struggle at is the run game, so I try to approach every day and get better and better.”
If Campbell keeps developing the way the Gophers hope, they have little doubt No. 26 will make a name for himself.