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Carlos Campbell: Not quite as planned

Pat Leonard | Friday, November 12, 2004

Carlos Campbell is a great athlete. In high school, he was a great athlete. And when Campbell committed to Notre Dame, he had to make the decision that faces so many superior all-around athletes out of high school – which position should he play?

“Coming in, of course, I wanted to be an All-American,” Campbell said. “And when I first came in, I wanted to be a receiver.”

His past experience on both sides of the ball was impressive.

Campbell was a two-way starter who earned all-state honors as a defensive back in 2000 and as a receiver in 1999. He caught 31 passes for 812 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1999, totaling career numbers of 75 catches, 1800 yards and 20 touchdowns. Over his final two seasons, Campbell also intercepted 15 passes.

All factors pointed to a successful stint on either side of the ball. But Campbell found on the Division-I college level that success was not guaranteed.

“Things were going well [at receiver] and then things didn’t work out, so I wanted to switch to the other side of the ball,” Campbell said. “I went to the coaches and told them, because I’ve always had a defensive player’s mind, and I felt that was the right time to change.”

Campbell now plays as a reserve cornerback and top special teams asset, ranking No. 12 on the team in tackles with 19 total (13 solos).

But the statistics under Campbell’s name did not always count tackles.

In his freshman and sophomore years, Campbell had caught just five passes for a total of 70 yards and zero touchdowns. During that time, he also received playing time on special teams, making three tackles as a sophomore and making 92 appearances on kick returns and coverage.

“That’s something that I enjoy, especially being in my position and not having the type of career that I’ve wanted, special teams plays a special part and is a key to this team,” Campbell said. “Whenever I get in the game, I can take advantage of my opportunities.”

The taste of hitting offered on special teams eventually swayed Campbell to flip his role on the Irish squad to the other side of the ball completely. And though Campbell saw the field only 12 minutes in 2003 as a reserve corner often hindered by injury, first-year defensive backs coach Steven Wilks feels a healthy Campbell has given the coach more options this season.

“I’ve seen [physical play] in Carlos several times,” Wilks said. “Throughout fall camp and last spring, he is physical. The one thing we’ve talked about with our whole secondary is just being consistent. And that’s the reason we put him into the boundary. That’s a guy that can be a boundary corner. We are able to roll him up [to the line], be physical for run support and things like that.”

But Campbell’s greatest value has appeared on special teams, where Notre Dame has struggled but relies on veterans like the Hampton, Va. native to prevent breakdowns.

“He’s a very important part of our special teams, particularly at gunner in gunner control on punt return teams,” Wilks said. “Those two [gunner] positions are very important to what we’re trying to do, and you’ve got to have guys with speed to plays those positions so no question.”

Regardless of the position he is listed at, Campbell – and coaches – know he has speed.

The senior also competes on the Irish track and field team as a sprinter, posting a 2004 indoor best of 7.27 in the 60-meter dash last season.

“He also adds a lot of speed,” Wilks said. “He’s a track guy, as well, so I think he has a little bit of both, to be a boundary and field corner and a gunner.

Campbell displayed his speed on the big scene in 2003 when he returned a fourth quarter Boston College fumble for a touchdown. Notre Dame would lose the game – its first loss of the season – but the play represented the epitome of Campbell’s college career.

“I would say my sophomore year [was most memorable], coming in with the new coach then going in winning eight straight games [and] being on the verge of winning a championship,” Campbell said. “Of course, it didn’t end like we wanted it to, but that’s the year I’ll probably most remember.”

Save a few big plays, Campbell feels he did not accomplish the goals he had set coming in as freshman. All the same, the senior has no regrets heading into his final game at Notre Dame Stadium against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

“Things happen for a reason,” Campbell said. “Of course, I didn’t have the career I wanted to have, but I don’t think I had a bad one either. There was always an injury here or there or something like that, but I have no regrets about anything.”

Head coach Tyrone Willingham said the loss of Campbell and his classmates, as it happens every year to a group of seniors, is not cause for despondence. Instead , it is an indelible ritual of college football.

“It’s one of those special acts that take place in college football that you don’t get any place else,” Willingham said. “That you get to have guys sometimes with four, five years and then to see them go off and hopefully on to pro careers and beneficial to them and their families.

“It really doesn’t hurt. It’s a joyous moment.”