Ibraheim Campbell redshirted during the 2010 season. It seems hard to believe now, given his remarkable recent string of accomplishments.
Those began almost immediately. As a redshirt freshman he intercepted Denard Robinson – then a Heisman frontrunner – twice against Michigan. He led the team with 100 tackles that season, and earned FWAA Freshman All-American honors.
Even with stronger performances from linebackers in 2012, Campbell might have emerged as the top defensive player on Northwestern. After some quiet outings early in the season, he rounded out his game – helping to anchor a much-improved defense.
Now, heading into his junior season, he has only one major thing left to accomplish. Well, maybe two, but Pat Fitzgerald refused to talk about his NFL aspirations.
“Too far off,” he said.
For the first time, Campbell will be the undisputed leader of the secondary. Unlike the past two seasons, when Brian Peters and Jared Carpenter took the field, there will likely be no senior starting next to him.
He's prepared for the challenge. The path to success was not easy for Campbell. It’s difficult to spend an entire season watching from the sidelines. He knows how the young guys feel as they experience struggles of their own.
“I try to share those experiences so they don’t go through the struggles I went through,” Campbell said.
Traveon Henry looks to fill the void left by Carpenter. Though the sophomore – one of four true freshmen to play in 2012 – did not participate on Thursday at practice, he is the odds-on favorite to win the position. Still, Fitzgerald insisted that Davion Fleming and Jimmy Hall have a shot at the starting role.
“All three of those guys are competing for that other spot right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll see how it goes: all three have every opportunity to win that job.”
Regardless of whether the seniors see time, Campbell will have the most playing experience and wisdom of anyone in this secondary. He’s seen a variety of offenses and grown accustomed to conference opponents.
One of the best coaching decisions of last season was when Fitzgerald made the move to Jared Carpenter. After Fleming struggled in the second half of the season opener, the fifth-year senior entered the starting fold and began to gel alongside Campbell. They showed solid chemistry as a safety unit, especially near the end of the year.
Carpenter dominated against Michigan State and earned Gator Bowl MVP honors. Some might not realize, though, how influential he was in helping Campbell.
“(He taught me) how to study the game,” Campbell said. “He had played linebacker… and shared different viewpoints that other defensive backs might not have been able to share.”
Campbell understands the pressure. Like so many NU players, he thinks about what could have been. His entire unit struggled mightily in the heartbreaking loss to Michigan. They were just a couple of plays away from the championship picture. They’re not going to let those moments slip away in 2013.
“We have to focus on the details,” Campbell said. “… We had plenty of opportunities last year to make plays that would have sealed games, but we weren’t able to make them then.”
His leadership, carried over from those tough experiences, can impact the outcome of games. And Fitzgerald summarized his ability in one word, meaning it the best way: “Ridiculous.”
For now, Campbell can focus on his own play. He can improve the little things. Everything else, he knows, will work itself out at the other safety spot.
“The right guy will be out there,” he said. “Our coaches are smart. They’ve been around for a while. I’m not worried about that.”
And he has no reason to be worried. For him, the process is working perfectly.