There's no missing De'Vondre Campbell at the East-West Shrine Game

After a week at East-West Shrine Game practice, Campbell is passing the "eye test" for NFL scouts

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University of Minnesota graduate De'Vondre Campbell is playing in the East-West Shrine Game on Saturday in St. Petersburg. Future NFL players often trace back their roots to this game.
  • De'Vondre Campbell is a 2010 Cypress Lake graduate
  • Campbell spent two seasons at Hutchinson CC before enrolling at the University of Minnesota 2013
  • Campbell had 123 tackles and 13 for a loss in his final two seasons with the Golden Gophers

ST. PETERSBURG — If De’Vondre Campbell had one thing going for him all week at East-West Shrine Game practice, it was his inescapable size.

How could you miss him? The 6-foot-5, 240-pound linebacker, a Cypress Lake High and University of Minnesota graduate, figures to be picked within the first six rounds of the NFL Draft in April and is what most NFL talent evaluators and player personnel executives term as a winner of the "eye test.”

As in, he passes the "Does he look like an NFL linebacker?" question almost immediately.

When he hit the field for the West squad on Tuesday, just four days away from the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field, you could see the obvious characteristics that most NFL teams crave on Sundays: height, size, speed, length and athletic ability.

“He has the dimension you look for and the athletic ability you look for,” Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said. “He appears to have the size and the height you want at the position.”

And on that promise alone, it may ultimately help Campbell get drafted, despite any deficiencies. NFL linebackers with his size don't grow on trees.

After practice, the Arizona Cardinals became the first team to approach Campbell, who had 123 tackles and 13 for a loss over his last two seasons with the Golden Gophers. And among other personal questions they posed — like whether he ever failed a drug test (once), or was in trouble at Minnesota (late to chapel once) — they really wanted to figure out one thing.

Why did you choose Minnesota? 

“They had the most fortune 500 companies per city or something like that,” Campbell said. “So I really went there for the school and football came along throughout the process.”

Did you get your degree?

“Yeah, I graduated last May 14,” he said. “This past fall I was doing my master’s in Human Resource Development. I thought it was a good complement for a business degree, just learning the way adults think and knowing that every adult is different.”

Campbell, 22, left the conversation glowing, knowing that while NFL organizations could examine his tape under a microscope and find flaws in his positioning or technique, they couldn’t challenge his character or his desire to become a successful professional.

“I have a principle,” Campbell said. “I base my life off of loyalty and being honest. Because when everything hits the fan, you can't say that you weren't honest about this or about that. When you lie, you kind of have to maintain this image. So I don't lie.”

Neither does the eye test.

Which is weird, because football wasn’t always so kind to Campbell.

Beating odds

He didn’t have a scholarship offer until his last game in high school — at the Lee County All-Star Game.

And even then, it took an MVP-like effort out of him.

Even then, it took the right person to be at the game — a scout named Brandon Staley (currently with James Madison University) handing him a card and asking him to call.

And still, he had to have the courage to say yes to Hutchinson Community College, located in a small town in Kansas, when his grades told him he could have gone elsewhere.

Minnesota wouldn't come until later.

Cypress Lake's Jayron Kearse gets blocking from De'Vondre Campbell in a game from 2010.

“Football didn't work out as well as I wanted in high school,” Campbell said. “But it was all a learning and development process. And it helped me get where I am now.”

His coach at Cypress Lake, Michael Thornton, had lined him up at defensive end, where he showed glimpses of greatness in pass rushing but lacked technique in run defense.

But he also knew that Campbell, who ran a 21.8 second 200-meter dash, had talent. He could see the size and the speed and the effort. And he knew Campbell had an innate ability to make plays on the ball. As a tight end, he caught a touchdown grab from future Clemson star and current draft NFL hopeful Jayron Kearse in a 28-20 win over Lely.

“He was everything you wanted in a defensive end,” Thornton said. “At tight end, he jumped and made some catches. He wasn't a wide receiver. He was a linebacker in a wide receiver's body back in high school.”

Behind the scenes, Campbell saw his mother, Cathryn, beat breast cancer and various heart attacks. His father, Luther, had a good job in maintenance for the Boston Red Sox's spring training affiliate in Fort Myers. He lived in a stable home in Harlem Heights with his family and graduated with a 3.3 GPA, he said.

Before the season ended, Campbell said he was preparing for life without football.

“I had a good showing in the all-star game,” he said. “Then I got the offer and I just jumped on it. Because it was my only opportunity.”

“What I'm most proud of is that he took advantage of the opportunity in front of him and opened up more doors for himself,” Thornton said. “He wasn't scared to go to Kansas. He wasn't scared to take a leap of faith and go there.”

Staying focused

Campbell described Hutchinson as a place with “one Wal-Mart and one gas station” and so he knew, almost immediately, what his intentions were while at junior college.

“It helped me stay focused on what mattered,” he said, “which was school and football.”

After sitting out his first year due to a concussion, Campbell flourished in his final year at Hutchinson, totaling 83 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. He moved to linebacker, where he gained weight and became more of a pass rushing threat.

Where to next?

He committed to Tennessee, because Staley had gotten a job there and had recommended Campbell, but after the staff was fired, plans shifted.

University of Minnesota redshirt senior De'Vondre Campbell played in the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg. Future NFL players often trace back their roots to this game.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill visited Fort Myers and sat down with Campbell, his mother and his father.

“He's a kid you could tell was hungry,” said Kill, who retired one game before the Michigan game this season because of health issues stemming from epilepsy. “I got a chance to meet his family. And meeting his family tells you a lot. You can tell he was a good kid.”

“He finds those diamonds in the rough players,” Campbell said. “I feel like that's what I was. I was a player that didn't get the attention that a lot of people did, like Sammy Watkins and a lot of the guys from the area. I was one of those guys who had to fight for everything I got.”

Campbell was sold on Minnesota the minute Kill exited the door.

Fruits of labor

It took a year to get acclimated to the scheme at Minnesota, though.

By Campbell’s junior year, Kill could tell he was becoming a future NFL talent.  With two years left, Campbell had gained 25 pounds of muscle and was competing at a lean playing weight of 240 pounds.

“His maturity level, his learning of the game and his understanding the game, I just think he was the most consistent he’s been,” Kill said. “There wasn’t one huge game or another, he was just very consistent.”

He wrangled four tackles and an interception for a touchdown in a win over Michigan, had 11 tackles in a loss to Illinois and then produced eight tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in a loss to Ohio State. He finished with 75 tackles on the season.

“I think it started to happen (me becoming more comfortable) around mid to late August and throughout the rest of the season when I started getting comfortable and everything started coming along,” Campbell said.

As a senior, despite missing two games, he registered a career-best 92 tackles, including three games with double-digit tackles, had an interception and a forced fumble.

Minnesota grad De'Vondre Campbell  scores a touchdown during the 2014 season.

His daughter was born on Oct. 14, just three days before a game against Nebraska. Campbell, who's not married, played, though he did so in a limited amount of snaps.

Throughout his senior campaign, Campbell, who started at outside linebacker and also featured heavily on special teams, saw himself as a professional prospect.

“I'm smart," he said. "I can play various positions, which is very, very valuable in the NFL nowadays.”

After the season, he signed with an Atlanta-based agent, Joseph Clayborne, whose last two clients were drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft.

And he was handpicked by Chuck Smith, a former NFL pro bowl lineman for the Atlanta Falcons, to train in Orlando for two months before the draft with seven other premier front-seven prospects.

“He doesn't make the same mistakes twice,” Smith said. “Which is a huge factor when you draft. You teach him, he learns. He soaks up information. He really challenges other guys he's working with. He brings so much value.”

Once he was selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game, all Campbell had left to do was impress.

Always learning

Campbell asks questions.

All the time.

After drills, after 11-man scenarios, to teammates and to coaches. Doesn’t matter. He wants to know what he’s doing right, what he’s doing wrong. On Tuesday, he turned to the West’s linebacker’s coach, SMU’s Randall Joyner, and pointed to the field. A question.

It’s the way he’s always been, because in a way, he’s always had to make up ground.

“He’s had a chip on his shoulder a little bit,” Kill said.

Wasn’t recruited in high school. Had to work his way through junior college.  Graduated from Minnesota and became a professional prospect, after years of hard work and dedication.

His head hasn’t gotten big. He’s still the same person he always was.

“I want to be known as that kind of guy that when things go wrong, I don't panic,” Campbell said. “I just take it as it comes and I work my way through it. I've been through plenty of situations where things don't go my way.

“Sometimes I want to give up, but that's not how I am as a person. I don't give up on things. I continue to progress, slowly but surely."

Now he's an NFL prospect, and heading toward a future he couldn't' have envisioned just five years ago.

That’s easy enough to see with your own two eyes.

The East-West Shrine Game

When: Saturday

Kick-off: 4 p.m.

Where: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg

Broadcast: The game will be televised on NFL Network

Skinny: The 91st annual East-West Shrine features over 120 of the best seniors in college football, with many projected to join NFL rosters over the next year by training camp. 

Local players: Cypress Lake graduate De'Vondre Campbell (Minnesota), West; Evangelical Christian School graduate John Lunsford (Liberty), East

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