Commentary

Slimmer Campbell must play big

Senior has sizable shoes to fill along Michigan's defensive line

Updated: April 4, 2012, 12:14 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brady Hoke and his staff met with their players for the first time in January 2011, having just arrived from San Diego State.

After the meeting, the coaches were approached by a behemoth of an individual. He had been recruited to play defense at Michigan, had shifted over to offense in search of a role and playing time, but now, with a new staff, he wanted a new chance.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Campbell
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesWill Campbell had 14 tackles last season, including two sacks.
He wanted to come back to defense. The player's name was Will Campbell. At one point, he weighed 356 pounds, and instead of being a space eater for the Michigan defensive line he was just a big guy, with potential and a ton of interior and exterior expectations, sitting on the sidelines.

"He had the young guy's mentality, went to offense, and he was frustrated and wanted to fulfill everyone's expectations," former Michigan defensive lineman Will Heininger said. "He's a Michigan man just like the rest of us, and he has high expectations for himself and is accountable to his teammates and is a very good teammate.

"He just needed to grow up a little bit."

Growing up is something every college athlete has to do at some point, especially in football, where players are often so much bigger and stronger than in high school. But Campbell's version of growing up was to cut out the laziness and actually make his massive size a little bit smaller.

It was something he fought to do his entire career -- drop enough weight so he'd be more than just a role player. Losing the weight would mean increased stamina and potentially increased athleticism for a guy who is athletic enough to play basketball with Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr.

Campbell even admits it now. Earlier in his career, as he floundered on the depth chart, he was lazy. He was too heavy. And when the new coaching staff came in and told him he could move back to defense, he also discovered a way to reform himself.

"At times (I'm lazy), but it was losing all the weight," Campbell said. "Working hard in the weight room. Being pushed a lot."

Many people surrounding Michigan were doing the pushing. There were the coaches, who tore down almost every player on the Wolverines at some point in the past 12 months in an attempt to rebuild them in their mold. There were players past, like former defensive lineman Brandon Graham, who went through their own weight transformations and turned them into a NFL career.

Then there were the guys in front of him on the depth chart -- Heininger and Mike Martin -- who guided him through everything as they, too, were learning what the coaches wanted.

Campbell said the support of the group helped him slim down and shape up to a point where he was able to play successfully at points last season, including filling in for an injured Heininger in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech.

Even he admits, though, he hasn't met his expectations yet.

"Early on, there was a little disappointment and then he bought in, and since then, he's been on the rise," Heininger said. "If you watch last year's film, Will did a lot of good things. He came in and helped us at times when we were all healthy but needed a blow, and he performed.

"I think that was because of his attitude last year."

It was an attitude that basically turned him into a willing pupil, from studying film with Heininger and working out with him to asking Martin questions all the time.

While Martin and Ryan Van Bergen led with their words, Heininger sat back. Also a quiet guy, he took Campbell and helped him.

"He was a quiet leader," Campbell said. "You always see him in the meeting room first, and when he had to gain weight you'd always see him in the weight room.

"I just learned by example."

Heininger downplayed his involvement with Campbell's growth, how Campbell shrunk his body and expanded the focus of his mind. He said it was more on how Campbell listened and that Campbell did it more on his own.

The new focus showed, too. After making five total tackles in his first two seasons, Campbell had 14 last season, including 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks -- by far the most productive season of his career.

No matter, everyone agrees on one thing. Will Campbell has had expectations -- personal and outside -- throughout his career. Now, down to a slim-for-him 315 pounds, he has this spring and next fall to finally meet them.

"It's big," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "But I think he's made great progress and what he's done from a physical standpoint when you look at him."

That step is accomplished. Next for Campbell is putting it together consistently.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter