MOBILE, ALA -- Michael Campanaro had already crafted a plan, convincing the defense that he intended to run another trademark intermediate route with a quick inside fake.
Instead of cutting his pattern short at practice this week heading into Saturday's Senior Bowl all-star game, the Wake Forest wide receiver from River Hill dashed behind the secondary and made an over-the-shoulder touchdown catch.
It was the kind of savvy, textbook play that prompted Atlanta Falcons wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie to single out the Clarksville native as an example of how to play the position to the other receivers on the North squad.
"I definitely feel like working the middle, you have to have a change of pace," said Campanaro, who caught 229 passes in four seasons at Wake Forest, the most in school history. "You have to understand leverages and coverages on the fly. Working the middle has got its knack and feel.
"You have to have a great knowledge of what defenses do against you and know how to sit down in zone and man. I think I do a great job of that with preparation and film study. I'm fearless across the middle. I don't care about getting hit. I think my quickness helps."
As Campanaro makes his bid for the NFL, he has already been told by one NFC West team that they plan to draft him if he's available in the third round. He's been projected by draft analysts anywhere from the third round draft pick a fifth round pick.
Campanaro's draft stock has gone up with the increased importance of slot receivers in the NFL, such as the Denver Broncos' Wes Welker, the New England Patriots' Danny Amendola, the Green Bay Packers' Randall Cobb and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown. A strong performance at the Senior Bowl could provide another boost.
If Campanaro runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds — good speed for a wide receiver — at the NFL scouting combine in February, he could further improve his draft outlook.
"I think Michael Campanaro is in the mold of a lot of the slot receivers that play in the NFL right now, the short, quicker guy," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I'm not sure what his pure speed is. We'll find that out later on, but he's got great quickness.
"He's got great toughness. And one thing he's done a very good job is that he's a guy that's been able to play all three positions already. So, he's got good knowledge of the game."
Size and speed are questions
Although relatively undersized at 5 foot 9, 191 pounds, Campanaro has a build similar to many NFL inside receivers, including Welker, who Campanaro has often been compared to.
Campanaro is six pounds heavier and the same height as Welker. He's two inches shorter and four pounds lighter than Amendola.
"I definitely take some things from his game," Campanaro said of Welker. "It's not a terrible comparison. He's one of the best receivers to play inside. I love watching Antonio Brown and Randall Cobb play, watching all the different kind of inside guys and how they work the middle. I love the comparisons. I'm not mad about it."
Still, the primary questions about Campanaro are regarding his lack of ideal size and speed.
"I can't do nothing about the 5-foot-9," Campanaro said. "You see a lot of guys 5-9, 5-10 in the league now."
Campanaro has met with several NFL teams this week, including a formal interview with the Ravens.
"I grew up a Redskins fan, but I'm not one of those Redskins fans who hates the Ravens," Campanaro said. "I went to a ton of Ravens games growing up. I love the Ravens, too, because they were so good, winning Super Bowls with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis and those guys."
Campanaro had 2,506 yards and 14 touchdowns as a Demon Deacon. As a junior, he finished with 79 catches for 763 yards and six touchdowns. He caught 67 passes as a senior in eight games before breaking his collarbone against Syracuse and was cleared for contact two weeks ago.
"I've been knocking off the rust," said Campanaro, who's been training at the same South Florida facility used by Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, Welker, Brown and Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall. "I'm just happy to be out here flying around and playing again."
Former NFL scout Russ Lande is among those curious to see how Campanaro will perform Saturday.
"He looks like a quick kid who runs sharp, precise routes, but I don't see explosiveness in him," said Lande, the Montreal Alouettes' director of college scouting. "He seems to have very good hands and a good feel for the game. I like a lot about him, but I just don't see that elite top guy. I don't see the top-end speed. I want to see him run away from guys to get separation deep.
"If he can show me that and make plays after the catch, that will alleviate concerns about his explosiveness and speed. He's a tough guy, but the big issue is getting used to press coverage and how physical and athletic the NFL corners are. He's got a lot of the tools to be a productive guy, but I don't know if he's going to be a starter."
Accustomed to success
Growing up in Howard County as the son of two chefs, he quickly emerged as a natural athlete.
"Even at six, seven years old, he was always the kid snagging balls out of the air," said Attilio Campanaro, Michael Campanaro's father. "You could see the hand-eye coordination right away. As he excelled in each stage, we were kind of just along for the ride. We're very proud. When he was getting recruited by colleges, everybody loved his production and athleticism. Maryland didn't pull the trigger after going back and forth with him for a year.
"Now, he's leading the group out here at the Senior Bowl. This has been awesome. I think he's really turning heads. We had a general manager tell our agent, Drew Rosenhaus, that if Michael's there in the third round they're going to take him. Drew says that's unusual for a team to say that this early in the process."
At River Hill, Campanaro led his team to two consecutive Maryland Class 2A state championships as he finished with 6,500 yards of total offense and 90 touchdowns in three seasons. He was selected to the Under Armour All-American game in high school after rushing for 1,848 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior running back.
Campanaro chose Wake Forest over scholarship offers from Northwestern, North Carolina, Akron and Boston College.
This isn't the first time that Campanaro has faced doubters, whether it was because of his size or how fast he runs.
"He's definitely had his supporters and believers and people who shook their heads and said, 'He's great, but I don't see him playing on a big stage,'" said Lisa Campanaro, the receiver's mother. "There were always people who said he's too small. I don't think those people really know him and his physical attributes, how quick and fast he is, all of the things that go into being a professional football player.
"I think a lot of people will be surprised. We believe in him so much and want everyone to believe in him. We want to block out the naysayers. He's out there at the Senior Bowl with the top guys and he belongs. He's thriving."
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