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April 29, 2012

DRAFT: Campbell goes from role player to NFL draftee



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    In the middle of the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers phoned former California defensive back D.J. Campbell. They had two picks left. They needed to know which players they had to draft, and which they could pick up in free agency.

    Little did they expect that Campbell -- who had only been a starter for one season -- would stick to his guns as intractably as he did.

    "I told them that I'm not a free agency guy," Campbell said. "I'm a draftable person."

    Campbell played in 46 games in his Cal career, including 38 of 39 during his last three seasons. He started 13 of his 14 career starts as a senior, after spending most of his career as a special teams role-player and reserve safety.

    Prior to 2011, Campbell had no career interceptions, 49 tackles, two passes defended, two tackles for loss and two sacks in 33 games. Nothing special. That is, until coach Ashley Ambrose came along.

    "Coach Ambrose really brought a players' mentality to our defensive backs group," Campbell says of the first-year coach. "With him being a former NFL player and fairly young -- just retiring less than 10 years ago -- he knows the game. He knows how to act in certain conditions. He knows how we should carry ourselves. He really helped me, more so, off the field -- not just talking about football, but about being a man -- just talking about life in general. We really built a connection and from that, when he would coach us on the field we had nothing but respect for him. That's when guys started to really play for him. I had a great relationship with him and not to knock anybody else, but I wish I had more time with coach Ambrose."

    And play, Campbell did. In one season, he more than doubled his career tackle output, tallying 71 stops, while adding 2.5 tackles for loss, seven passes defended, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions returned for a total of 29 yards -- all career-highs -- as he started all 13 games for the Bears.

    Campbell earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors for his breakout season, but when the time came for invitations to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, his mailbox was empty. It took four years for Campbell to rise from bit player to centerpiece. He wasn't about to let any slight - perceived or otherwise - slow him down.

    "Initially, it was kind of a big deal," Campbell says. "I kind of took it to heart, that I didn't get invited to the combine, because I felt that I had the things necessary to be invited to the combine, but after a while, I sat back and noticed that a lot of other guys didn't really get invited to the combine, either. I did use it as fuel to perform even better. I just saw it as an opportunity to improve my times and really prepare."

    By the time Cal's annual Pro Day rolled around, Campbell was ready. He pushed out 22 bench press reps of 225 pounds -- a mark that would have tied for first among safeties at the combine -- then proceeded to run a 4.51 40-yard dash, notch a 38-inch vertical leap that would have checked in second at his position, and fire off a a 10-foot-7 broad jump that would have tied for second, as well.

    So, when the Panthers called on Saturday afternoon, Campbell knew he was worth a draft pick. Carolina soon saw things his way.

    "It just comes down to me being really confident in my abilities as a football player," says Campbell. "I honestly and wholeheartedly believe that I'm a draftable player. I think I'm above free agency. That's no disrespect to anyone at all that may be a free agent or may not have gotten drafted, but I just feel that I'm that caliber of a player."

    One round after the initial phone conversation, the Panthers called back. Campbell was surrounded by a robust support system at his family's home in Las Vegas. He was a senior. He was not invited to the combine. He had only started for one year. Despite all of that, in Campbell's heart, he had all the leverage.

    "I'm actually out here in Vegas now at home with all my family, pretty much it's everyone who's supported me from day one -- all my Pop Warner games, all the way through high school and college -- are here," said Campbell. "I have some family from out of town who are here and visiting, and it just so happened that the draft was the same weekend. The whole process is really for them. I'm not much of a big partier, not one for much of a celebration or anything like that. It's for them and supporting me over the years, not so much for my success but the support of my family over the years."

    With all of that support behind him, Campbell's confidence and belief in his own abilities paid off. During the seventh round, the phone rang again. It was the Panthers. Campbell had played hard to get, and it worked like a charm.

    "Come the seventh round, I get the phone call and they say 'We're going to take you,'" Campbell says. "I said, 'Are you sure? You're serious? You're not playing?' They said they were going to take me, and that it was going to come across the screen right now. When it came across the screen, then it was official."

    Campbell became the second Bears safety to be drafted in as many years, following Chris Conte, who was taken in the third round (93rd overall pick) by the Chicago Bears. While Campbell is the first Cal player ever drafted by Carolina, former Bear Ron Rivera will be entering his second season as skipper in 2012.

    "I'm honored to get picked by the Panthers," Campbell said. "They're a fairly young franchise, but they're up-and-coming and on the rise, and they've had success in the past. They have plenty of good players on their team, and I'm just really excited to play."


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