Gophers fall camp Day 2: De'Vondre Campbell garnering attention at LB
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MINNEAPOLIS - He may be a newcomer to the Minnesota Gophers' defense, but it's hard not to notice De'Vondre Campbell, with dreadlocks flowing out of his helmet over his well-toned frame, looming at linebacker.
Not only is Campbell the tallest member of the "U" linebacker corps, but his 6-foot-5, 225-pound build carries with it the athletic sheen of a high caliber linebacker. It's the type of blatant and raw athleticism that has been lacking in that section of defense since Jerry Kill arrived two years ago.
Only two practices into fall camp the widely sought after junior college transfer has garnered raves from the coaching staff.
"The guy who has really impressed me with the learning curve and catching on is De'Vondre," Kill said unprompted post-practice on Saturday. "He doesn't mess around. He's focused. He's locked in and he's really done well the first couple of days, which surprised me a little bit."
The Gophers more than welcome the surprise. Linebacker was the weakest portion of the "U" defense last season, and while the unit has slowly begun to build potential, it is a group that remains loaded with questions entering the season.
Following the turnover of a top-heavy senior class, the Gophers return only two players who have more than one career tackle and four games of experience -- seniors Aaron Hill (34 games, 13 starts in 2012, 120 tackles) and James Manuel (37 games, 90 tackles).
But the hope is that Campbell, along with fellow transfer Damien Wilson and a budding crop of redshirt freshmen and sophomores, can bolster a unit in need of a pick-me-up.
In late January, when the Gophers got Campbell, who was a star at Hutchinson community college with an enticing three years of eligibility remaining, to reverse his commitment to Kansas State at the last minute, the mood throughout the coaching staff was ecstatic. They had landed exactly what they were looking for.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys cherishes height in his linebackers, and he has that now in Campbell.
"Everybody worries about height in the D-line," Claeys said. "I'm more worried about it at linebacker. I like to have linebackers with more length. I think they cover up more passing zones. Don't get me wrong, I'll take tall D-linemen too, but it's going to be nice to get some height and length at the linebacker spot."
Any hype thrown Campbell's direction has to be couched with the reminder that it's very early in camp and the Gophers are still three practices away from their first look in full pads. However, Campbell has displayed a solid grasp of the playbook and his place on the field in a short amount time, despite a few botched fits and minor spacing issues.
"Early in practice yesterday he made a huge mistake on a call and we got after them," Claeys said. "Later on in practice the same thing happened. He already had it corrected by then. That's what gets me excited ... I think he has natural instincts when it comes to the game and he has plenty of athletic ability to play."
Campbell has started camp with the second team unit at outside linebacker, but if he stays on the upward track he is already in it is highly possible that he can overtake a starting spot. That would most likely mean passing Manuel on the depth chart.
Notes and observations from Day 2
• Claeys said he has focused primarily in the first two practices on evaluating his linebackers, as he tries solidify six players he envisions shouldering the majority of playing time this season.
Best current guess on who those six are likely to be: Aaron Hill, Damien Wilson, James Manuel, De'Vondre Campbell, Jack Lynn and Jephte Matilus.
• Defensively, the process of determining who to redshirt is set to begin much earlier in camp. In the last two seasons, the Gophers were spreading reps across three units as late as the day before their opening game in an effort to finalize their depth chart. But Claeys expects to start firming up his defense following the 10th practice of camp next weekend.
Linebacker is the position on defense most likely to see one or two freshmen given the chance to play right away. Rayfield Dixon and De'Niro Laster have both caught Claeys' attention.
"Rayfield has made some plays," Claeys said. "And De'Niro has the size to where he could play right now if he picks up on things and things go well. It's just too early to tell."
• Ra'Shede Hageman has been getting all the attention on the defensive line, but the line as a whole has quietly formed some quality depth, especially at tackle.
Redshirt junior Cameron Botticelli, a starter in all 13 games alongside Hageman last season and part of the top layer of talent in the interior, recognizes the improvements being made and insists the "U" D-line is a unit to watch this year.
"Ra'Shede has worked really hard and deserves any hype that he does get," Botticelli said. "But I do think that this D-line is packed with other talented players, who have been working just as hard as Ra'Shede in the offseason. I would expect a couple pleasant surprises come the fall."
• Safety Cedric Thompson had a notable day in passing shell with a pair of interceptions, including one off a tip ball thrown by quarterback Philip Nelson.
• Nelson and backup quarterback Mitch Leidner both struggled periodically with their accuracy again in pass shell and team drills. Leidner was all over the place, overthrowing multiple receivers and having several passes picked off.