They are two of the Gophers’ most indispensable players, yet at this time last year, they were both somewhat overwhelmed. Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell had transferred from junior colleges and quickly realized the complexities of playing linebacker in the Big Ten.
Their learning curves were steep, and their bodies were works in progress. The 6-2 Wilson was too heavy. The 6-5 Campbell was too thin.
Now both weigh about 240 pounds. Wilson shed 15 pounds to get there, and Campbell added about 20.
“You just watch practice, and they move around a lot faster [than last year],” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “There’s no hesitation in them. They know what they’re doing. Those are two of the better linebackers in the Big Ten, in my opinion.”
The Gophers are counting on Wilson and Campbell to be difference-makers for a defense that ranked 25th nationally last year in points allowed (22.2 per game) and expects to improve. The secondary remains strong, but defensive line depth is a question mark, and the linebackers must be better, especially against the run.
No longer timid
With his tall frame and long hair flapping from his helmet, a la MarQueis Gray, Campbell remains one of the roster’s most compelling players. He made 41 tackles last year as a sophomore, sharing time at outside linebacker with then-senior James Manuel.
“I think the Iowa game is when I realized I needed to gain at least about another 15 or 20 pounds, because those are some big boys,” said Campbell, who hails from Fort Myers, Fla.
Physically, Campbell has come a long way from 2011, when the lanky speedster placed seventh in the 200-meter dash at the Florida state high school track meet. He weighed 210 pounds two years ago at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, and about 220 last year.
This offseason, he added 20 pounds of muscle, not fat, and credits his work with strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein, as well as team nutritionist Brittany Francis.
This month, the NCAA began permitting schools to feed athletes unlimited meals and snacks. Campbell wants to cap his weight at 245 pounds and thinks the new rule will help, since the school-provided food is more nutritious than what he was eating on his own.
“I don’t really have to go out and buy too much,” Campbell said. “I can always take some home and eat late night when I get hungry. That can help out a lot because those late-night snacks — that’s where the weight really comes. Eating and sleeping, and then it just sits on you.”
The Gophers used Campbell primarily in passing situations last year, but now it looks like he’ll be an every-down player, like Wilson is at middle linebacker.
“Last year, I was a lot more timid,” Campbell said. “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. I just feel a lot more comfortable with the system, knowing the plays.”
Wilson’s last stand
Campbell still has two years of eligibility remaining, but Wilson is a senior, so this is it.
A native of Gloster, Miss., Wilson took a long route getting to Minnesota. First he hopped from Alcorn State to Jones County (Miss.) Community College, where he won a 2012 national defensive player of the year award.
Wilson started 12 games for the Gophers last year and made 78 tackles. He filled a crucial hole at middle linebacker, but the team hopes he takes another step.
“I really feel he’ll have a very good year because he’s more comfortable with the defense,” coach Jerry Kill said. “With a junior college player, it usually takes a year for them to kind of settle in and understand the scheme.”
Wilson played at 255 pounds last year but trimmed down, looking to add more sideline-to-sideline speed.
“I’m moving a lot better, faster, but still just as strong,” he said.
Wilson also has become more of a vocal leader. Last year, he deferred to the team’s senior linebackers — Manuel and Aaron Hill — but now he’s in their position, mentoring the underclassmen.
With Cody Poock recovering from knee surgery, the Gophers likely will start sophomore Jack Lynn at outside linebacker, next to Wilson and Campbell. The second linebacker unit includes redshirt freshmen De’Niro Laster and Ray Dixon, and sophomore Nick Rallis.
“Now that I’m a senior, I’m in a teaching phase,” Wilson said. “I’m trying to teach the freshmen, so that when I leave, we can keep building, brick by brick.”