COLLEGE PARK — Chance Campbell doesn’t quite look the part of a Big Ten middle linebacker.
At 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds, the Maryland sophomore is about the same size he was as a senior at Calvert Hall. When he takes off his helmet to talk with reporters after a recent practice, you understand how Campbell once dreamed about playing lacrosse for the Terps when he was in high school, perhaps as a faceoff specialist and midfielder.
Put it this way: Dick Butkus, who once set the standard for the position while playing at Illinois, didn’t have freckles.
Still, Campbell has long fooled those who thought he was too small and perhaps a tad too slow to play the position at a Power 5 program, even one that has been undergoing a nearly annual reboot for much of the past decade. And Campbell, who is in the mix to start for Maryland this season, has made believers out of his coaches and teammates, just as he did at Calvert Hall.
“He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” first-year coach Mike Locksley said after last Saturday’s scrimmage. “An effort guy. Really smart. I’ve been pleased with his ability to play in space and play tough, get the right calls in.”
Said fellow sophomore Jordan Mosley, who’ll likely start at safety: “He’s a strong guy. He might not look like it, but he’s one of the strongest guys on the team.”
All this isn’t surprising for longtime Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis to hear. He watched Campbell’s evolution from a player who wasn’t big enough to play varsity as a freshman to first getting on the field as a safety and eventually becoming a two-way star who capped his high school career with a dominant performance against Loyola Blakefield in the 2017 Turkey Bowl.
One thing that remains a constant for Campbell is he plays the position better than most expect, at least based on first glance.
“Is he a guy who’s immediately going to jump out at you? No,” Davis said this week. “He’s not one of those height, weight, speed guys. He’s got speed now, because he’s worked at it. Right upon looking at him, you’re not going to think this guy is the strongest among elite athletes.
"Chance is unique. He’s smarter than players are supposed to be, and more athletic and physical than maybe people think.”
So, how does Davis explain the player Campbell has become?
“An elite work ethic,” Davis said. “When I say he’s a student of the game, it’s not just a student of the game as a player. He’s a student of the game like a coach. He studies at the level of elite coaches. He sees the [game] through that lens. He’s got what all of us wish we had. All of us wish we knew then what we know now because we were more physically able to do something about it. He’s a kid who knows now.”
After playing in 11 games as a freshman last season, mostly on special teams, Campbell has emerged as a potential starter at inside linebacker, where he will be tasked with helping replace Tre Watson, a one-year wonder as a graduate transfer last season who led the Big Ten in tackles per game. Watson, an undrafted free agent trying to make the Miami Dolphins roster, was voted first-team All-Big Ten by the media.
Asked what the biggest difference has been through the first two weeks of preseason camp, Campbell said after practice Tuesday: “Probably just growing up. It’s a bit of a jump from high school to college. Really learning about defense. You kind of think you have an idea coming in, and you find out what you don’t know.”
Campbell said the talent he played against in high school helped him prepare for what he would face at Maryland, but his role and responsibilities in reading offenses have changed.
“Fortunately, I played in the [Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association]. I’ve seen some speed and some really big guys — Jaelyn Duncan, I actually got a chance to play against,” Campbell said, referring to the 6-6, 323-pound former St. Frances offensive lineman who is now a teammate. “Schematically, it was pretty tough for me at first. Having real assignments and having real obligations and not kind of freelancing.”
Campbell used his freshman season at Maryland to help where he could, and got a chance to see how Watson played the position. He didn’t seem to mind waiting his turn.
“We had really great linebackers, a veteran crew that really should have been in there,” said Campbell, who finished the season with 10 tackles. “I needed some time to learn. I really tried to make my mark on special teams and contribute where I could.”
Campbell said there was some parallels to his high school career, where he played junior varsity as a freshman mostly because of his size.
“Growing up physically in high school and growing up mentally in college,” Campbell said.
As with most players making the jump from high school to college, Campbell said the biggest thing is seeing the game. Campbell said more experienced linebackers, such as senior Isaiah Davis, as well new inside linebackers coach John Papuchis, have helped him in that process.
“If you can see a whole picture, it can kind of slow the game down,” Campbell said. “The more film you watch and the better understanding you have of your defense as well the offense, you don’t have to think as much. The more thinking you can take out of the game, the better you are. Having guys like that show you the ropes and how to do that was awesome.”
Campbell’s rise from likely rotation player to a potential starter took off during spring practice and has carried over as the Aug. 31 opener against Howard approaches.
“He came a long way,” said Mosley, who as a freshman finished with 29 tackles, including a career-high six in the season finale at Penn State. “He was not by any means bad last year. He was a good player, but this year he’s taken that step to be a real contributing factor to the defense this year. He’s a good leader, and he’s a true middle linebacker. He’ll help us with the run significantly.”
Davis learned even before Campbell arrived at Calvert Hall not to underestimate his future star.
Recalling the first conversation he had with Campbell, when he and his parents were looking at high schools, Davis said, “You don’t put anything past Chance Campbell, which is what I learned.”
It started with Campbell asking Davis a question.
“His question to me was, where did I envision him as a player, which is an interesting question for a kid who’s 12 or 13 years old — where do you envision my skill set fitting in?” Davis recalled. “I said, ‘I think you’re a Mike [middle] linebacker probably in our defense.’ I was more telling him that so he would know there was a specific role for him.”
Campbell’s response was he thought he could play multiple linebacker positions, as well as run the ball on offense. By the time Campbell had finished his career at Calvert Hall, he had played four different linebacker positions after beginning at safety, as well as some fullback. Davis still thinks about what Campbell did in his team’s 27-6 win over Loyola Blakefield in 2017.
“He had something like 11 or 12 tackles, an interception and he scored two touchdowns as a running back,” Davis said. “I learned — even inadvertently — never to limit Chance Campbell or what he’s capable of doing or being. I believe his potential is limitless.”