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Iowa Defensive Player to Watch: Linebacker Jack Campbell

The Hawkeyes’ tackling machine leads an imposing defense, which is arguably the toughest Ohio State will face all regular season.

When the Iowa Hawkeyes roll into Columbus on Saturday, they will be hauling a big, bad, nasty defense with them. Currently ranked ninth in total defense and third in points per game allowed, this unit has been the team’s calling card for a number of years. They are disciplined, incredibly opportunistic, and particularly stingy in the red zone.

Perhaps most impressively, the Hawkeyes have not finished outside the top-20 in PPG allowed since 2014 — a streak only matched by Alabama (as far as I can tell). And it’s not solely because they play keep-away and win the time of possession battle with a slow, plodding, egregiously bad offense... Sorry, Ferentz fanatics, you should have seen that coming.

In all seriousness, the Iowa defense has been one of college football’s most consistent, bankable entities. And much of their recent success can be attributed to defensive coordinator Phil Parker. He has been with the program since 1999, when he joined Kirk Ferentz’ inaugural staff. The Lorain, OH native coached Hawkeye defensive backs until 2012, when he was promoted to DC. He then handed DB duties over for his transitional season, but took the responsibility back in 2013. He has been both DC and position coach ever since.

Predictably, the Iowa secondary has been lights out under Parker. From Desmond King, to Amani Hooker, to (currently) Riley Moss, players from this position group have regularly been among the Big Ten’s best. There have also had plenty of studs in the front seven. First-round draft picks along the defensive line, tackling machines such as Josey Jewell, and everything in between. However, the one thing that always jumps out to me is consistent linebacker play from the Hawkeyes.

Now, I can’t sit here and tell you that those guys have been the most athletic three-down linebackers to ever step on a field. They are not asked to rush the passer very often, they can be hit-and-miss in coverage... But Iowa linebackers flat-out know how to play football. They have a see ball, get ball mentality, and seemingly always possess a high football IQ.

Jack Campbell is the current version of “that dude”, and at 6-foot-5, 240+ pounds, he pokes a giant hole in my previous athleticism argument. He absolutely exploded onto the CFB scene in 2021, and has now established himself as arguably the best defender in the Big Ten. For that reason, he is this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.

Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The fourth-year Hawkeye is a homegrown kid, hailing from Cedar Falls, IA. Choosing to stay home, Campbell joined the Iowa program in 2019 and appeared in 11 games as a 208-pound true freshman. He barely registered a stat, primarily gaining experience on special teams. As most college players do, he bulked up and worked his tail off during the offseason, fully expecting to compete for a starting LB position in 2020.

However, a case of mono kept Campbell out of his team’s first three games. Given the nature of his untimely illness, it would have been easy for the then-sophomore to fall behind and have a slow ramp-up period. But Campbell was having none of it. He continued to work hard and prepare his body, and once healthy, was immediately thrust into the starting lineup. It is a move that has paid dividends for all.

Campbell became a starter midway through the 2020 campaign, and hit the ground running. He had clearly shown enough during the offseason and throughout his time missed, that the coaching staff was eager to get him into the lineup. And their eager confidence paid off. In the Hawkeyes’ final five games, Campbell registered 29 total tackles, 4.5 TFL, one forced fumble, and one interception — Not a main course, but a fine appetizer. It gave him even more confidence heading into last season, when he became one of college football’s most productive players at any position.

Playing the Mike LB position, Campbell covered not only the middle of the field for Iowa’s defense, but damn-near the entire thing in 2021. He racked up an absurd 143 total tackles, enough to earn him CFB’s tackle title — unless it wasn’t. Sports-reference credited him with 140, good for second in the country. and the Iowa website both have 143, but while NCAA has Campbell No. 1 in FBS, his team bio reads “second in the Big Ten”... And this concludes another episode of The More You Know. At any rate, Campbell also added six passes defended, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. He was in the right place at the right time, every time.

What does not show in the stats is how disruptive the Hawkeye LB can really be. He is not asked to blitz a ton, and for whatever reason, has not accumulated many TFL (10 career). However, Campbell has the ability to get after the QB, and is a regular presence in the backfield. Much like we’ve seen with Ohio State players this year – J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer especially – getting to the QB and applying pressure do not always lead to statistical results, but the impact is significant. Campbell is not an outside rusher, so this is not a perfect comparison, but the facts remain the same. It just so happens that he is typically given other assignments, which he carries out very well.

The fourth-year LB is fundamentally sound, lays the boom with his hits, and honestly, should not be as skilled as he is at 6-foot-5, 240-plus pounds. Because they just don’t make middle linebackers his size. Campbell should be too lanky to play the position. He should have trouble in space or coverage. But he doesn’t. He is without a doubt one of the best in college football at his position. And the accolades certainly reflect that.

Campbell was named a permanent team captain by Iowa, and earned All-Big Ten and All-American recognition for his 2021 season. Heading into 2022, he was put on every national watch list imaginable, and I was unable to find a preseason poll where he was not chosen as the Big Ten’s presumptive Defensive Player of the Year. And thus far, Campbell has not made any of the prognosticators look foolish. He may or not finish as the B1G’s best, but he has totaled 63 tackles and 3.0 TFL. He is the leader of an outstanding Iowa defense, which has been the only thing keeping this team at or above .500.

Jack Campbell is simply a maniac on the football field in the best way imaginable. He is involved on nearly every defensive stop, and plays the LB position with a truly impressive blend of anticipation and feel. Despite their best efforts, C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, and others will become acquainted with Campbell on Saturday night. It will take a Herculean effort from him to slow down the Buckeye offense – at least, enough for the Hawkeyes’ own offense to keep up – but he is going to give it everything he’s got. I will have my eyes set on Campbell, hoping that OSU’s front can minimize his overall impact. It will certainly be a tall task.