Niyo: Jack be quick: Rookie LB Campbell on fast track for starting role

Detroit News

Allen Park — The country boy is surviving, all right.

Maybe even thriving, though you’ll be hard-pressed to get Lions rookie linebacker Jack Campbell to say as much, barely a week into his first NFL training camp.

Campbell, the first-round pick out of Iowa, did complete his rookie initiation last week by singing the Hank Williams Jr. classic, “A Country Boy Can Survive,” in front of the entire team. And for a self-admitted introvert, it was another sign he’s settling in as a pro, while also staying true to himself. (“I can plow a field all day long. I can catch catfish from dusk ’til dawn.”)

jack“It wasn’t the most recognizable song,” laughed Aidan Hutchinson, whose “Billie Jean” rendition last year in camp proved to be a “Hard Knocks” hit. “But, as long as you sell it …”

Well, now would be a pretty good time to buy stock in Campbell, who may have been a surprise selection at No. 18 overall by the Lions back in April but already looks like he’s on track to be a Day 1 starter at linebacker this fall.

Rookie caveats still apply — “He’s a good player, but he’s still learning,” cautioned Aaron Glenn, the Lions’ defensive coordinator — but after just a few days of padded practice in camp, Campbell seems to be making the most of the first-team reps he’s getting alongside veteran Alex Anzalone in the middle of the Lions’ defense.

Added Glenn: “He is a very serious operator and he takes his job seriously. That’s one thing that we liked about him. That’s why we drafted him where we did: His ability, his physicality, his skill set and what he can do for our defense.”

That was on full display in Friday’s first session in pads, where Campbell’s hustling forced fumble and recovery downfield against running back Craig Reynolds was among the day’s defensive highlights. But, it continued through the weekend, as the fans began filling the stands in Allen Park and the intensity ratcheted up on the field.

Saturday morning, Campbell sniffed out a play-action rollout for a whistle-blown sack of Nate Sudfeld as the defense again got the upper hand on the Lions’ much-hyped offense. He wasn’t alone in making big plays for Glenn’s crew, and third-year linebacker Derrick Barnes, who is Campbell’s chief competition for a starting weakside role in Week 1, flashed some of his explosive ability with a blitzing run stop on rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs as well.

But, it was near the end of Sunday’s workout — more of a walkthrough after back-to-back padded practices — that you could see and hear some of the progress Campbell has made in short order with the Lions. He’s not hard to find on the field: at nearly 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, the linebacker looks more like an edge rusher. B,ut there in a red-zone drill Sunday, it was Campbell’s voice that really stood out, barking out pre-snap calls for the rest of the defense with authority.

“Yeah, when I step on the field, I gotta be intentional about my communication,” Campbell said. “I can’t be saying 1,000 different things, confusing a bunch of people. When I say something, I’ve got to be loud and clear.”

And to just to be clear, he added, “That’s something as a rookie you’ve got to keep working on, because, for me, there’s a couple of different things that I might second-guess myself a little bit and you can’t. … When you make a call, you’ve got to make it loud, because it’s affecting everyone.”

Good instincts

That’s a lesson he learned over time at Iowa, where he was a four-year player and two-year starter, winning the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, in 2022. But, it’s something he’s focused on with a greater sense of urgency now that he’s had time to digest Glenn’s defensive playbook through his first abbreviated NFL offseason.

“Obviously, coming into a whole new system, a whole new playbook, (I’m) just really trying to be intentional with that, learn it as quick as I can,” Campbell said. “So, then, when I step foot on the field, I kind of know how to do things, where to align, just like fundamental stuff. And then as I get more in tune with that, I can start looking at tendencies and stuff like that.

“So, I’d say that’s the biggest thing right now. It’s just me getting my feet settled with the playbook, knowing what to do. And then, the next step is gonna be going out there and then start figuring out plays before they happen.”

Until that happens, Glenn and linebackers coach Kelvin Shappard have made it clear they won’t just hand the rookie a starting job. Mostly because they don’t feel they have to now given the improved depth at linebacker on this roster, with Barnes having made strides over the winter and Malcolm Rodriguez — last year’s rookie starter — healthy again, after missing time this spring. (Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Anthony Pittman also add experience at the position, along with their core special-teams value.)

Not that Campbell would have it any other way, mind you.

“I’ve got expectations for me to just come out here and be Jack Campbell,” he said. “I don’t gotta be known. I don’t gotta be this guy for this person, or this person for that person. Just be Jack Campbell. And any time that I come out here, and I get an opportunity to go compete, I’m gonna go compete.”

Still, there’s a reason why head coach Dan Campbell turned to general manager Brad Holmes in the war room early on Day 2 of the draft and told him, “That’s three starters,” after the Lions had added Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta to the first-round tandem of running back Jahmyr Gibbs and Campbell. It’s the same reason the coaches all turned to each other following Jack Campbell’s interview with the Lions at the NFL scouting combine in February, and according to Sheppard, said, “Damn, that’s gonna be hard to top right there.”

And if you ask another guy who knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a starting linebacker in the NFL, he’ll tell you something more about the value of the position — and the player — the Lions invested in the top of this draft.

“When you pick a linebacker (in the first round), what you’re betting on is not only are we getting a starter, but (it’s also) the importance of communication at the green dot and the intelligence of that position and you’re setting a foundation for your defense,” said former Lions All-Pro Chris Spielman on 97.1 The Ticket’s “Stoney and Jansen” show Monday. “And by the way, does he fit the culture? Yeah. Yeah, he does.”

Spielman went on to share a hilarious analogy about his daughter’s new dog, a pizza-stealing pup with “elite” athleticism, terrific ball skills, and impressive plant-and-cut ability but questionable instincts.

“So, when you draft that (linebacker) position, he’d better have instincts,” Spielman continued. “If he doesn’t have instincts, he’s got no shot. And Jack has them.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @john.niyo

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