Allen Park — It’s been more than two decades since Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz last worked in the NFL. At his final stop in the professional ranks, the first few seasons of the Baltimore Ravens’ existence, the team spent a first-round pick on Miami linebacker Ray Lewis.
And of all the key additions that franchise made during the next several years, arguably none were more important than Lewis. He was the heart and soul of those dominant Ravens defenses, twice winning defensive player of the year honors, as well as a pair of Super Bowl rings.
Ferentz is rightfully quick to limit any comparisons to Lewis, but the veteran coach sees at least some overlap with linebacker Jack Campbell, who was the key cog in the nation’s best defense at Iowa last season, and was selected by the Detroit Lions with the No. 18 pick in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night.
“From the day (Lewis) showed up as a rookie until he finished his career there, the impact he had on that team, not only on the defensive team, but the entire team — I’m not saying Jack is Ray Lewis; I’m just saying there’s probably some characteristics that are similar,” Ferentz said. “And when you get a player that’s really impactful, that’s important, I’m not here to say what the price should be for that, but what I told people in the NFL as they came through was that one thing I can feel pretty confident saying: Whoever drafts him is not going to let him leave the building over the next 10 years. Because it’s one thing to get a really good football player; it’s another thing to get a guy who really adds value in so many other areas, and I think that’s what Jack does. It’s just how he’s wired.”
Ferentz and his staff at Iowa fell in love with Campbell on the recruiting trail, when he was just a 10th grader at Cedar Falls Hill School, 90 minutes north of Iowa’s campus. Ferentz’s initially thought the tall defender would pack on some weight and play defensive end for the Hawkeyes, but despite the oversized frame for the position, he was able to stick at linebacker because of his athleticism.
“I think Jack has that kind of position flexibility,” Ferentz said. “He’s kind of rare in that way, but I know this, when we recruited him, we felt like there was nothing we could do wrong there. …I’ve told people, ‘If we had five Jack Campbells, all five would be starting: Two would have been our defensive ends and the other three would have been all three linebackers.’ He could have played any of the positions in our defense.”
Five years after landing the recruit, Ferentz can say, without hesitation, Campbell is one of the finest players he’s ever coached. And the on-field contributions are only a small part of that assessment. For the coach, it was Campbell’s daily energy, his leadership and ability to cultivate relationships with those around him that sets him apart.
“The best illustration I can give you, we were a team that had a lot of offensive challenges this year,” Ferentz said. “It’s a long litany of issues you don’t really care about, but we were struggling offensively. You know, people were trying to divide the team and get guys to talk against each other and all that and Jack put an end to that really quickly with the media, basically explaining to them that we’re one football team and we all work together. That’s how he was in the building on top of it. As a coach, you respect that. We live in a world where people are trying to divide us all the time and he not only stayed strong but was very vocal about it.”
On the field, Campbell was remarkably productive, racking up more than 260 tackles in the past two seasons. And he had a knack for making a big play when the Hawkeyes needed it most. Ferentz highlighted one memorable example, which the coach feels illustrates the player’s three-down potential at the next level.
“One play I remember as much as any was during the pandemic here in ’20 against Wisconsin,” Ferentz said. “I think we were up, 14-7, and just going ahead, 14-7, and they drove it right down to our goal line. And he made a play off the play-action pass where they were trying to get him sucked in and tried to take the ball back in behind him. And he smelled it out and got back, and not only broke the play up but made an interception, so we got possession back and they didn’t score. We ended up winning the game, 28-7. But it was a really close game that could have been really close and really contested and that was, to me, the play of the game. And the only reason I single that play out was, it’s not just athletic ability, but it’s also just knowing how to play football.
“Unfortunately, in 20-plus years, I’ve seen us get beat on that play a lot,” Ferentz said. “I’m sure that’s why they ran it. But Jack had the ability to smell it out and make a really good play. He has the athleticism but also has the football instinct, acumen whatever you want to call it.”
Being out of the NFL for so long, and laser-focused on his current position in Iowa, Ferentz only loosely follows the happenings of professional football. That much was clear when he referred to the NFC North Division as the NFC Central, a name that’s been defunct since the league’s 2002 realignment. Still, the coach is cognizant of some of the trends, including the devaluation of the linebacker position in the draft.
Admitting his extreme bias toward Campbell, Ferentz acknowledged having a gut feeling a team was going to select the linebacker earlier than maybe many expected, and Ferentz expects that team will be rewarded for going against conventional wisdom.
“It’s really hard to have a good team, a championship-level team, without those kind of players,” Ferentz said. “And I think it’s an extra bonus when you have them at certain positions. To me, linebacker is one of those positions where you want somebody kind of in the hub of things. It’s kind of like baseball, being strong up the middle. I’ve always believed that. So I think you’re getting a lot from Jack besides being a guy who can play the position pretty well.”