IOWA CITY, Iowa - Jack Campbell has one interception in his Iowa football career. It wasn’t routine.
“That interception is really a signature play in my mind,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Monday. “Because I’ve seen that play not get made by a lot of good players.”
The Hawkeyes had a 21-7 lead on Wisconsin with just under 5 minutes to play on Dec. 12 at Kinnick Stadium. The Badgers were facing a fourth-and-goal at the Iowa 2 when quarterback Graham Mertz dropped back and saw tight end Jake Ferguson break free in the back of the end zone.
But Campbell, showing great closing speed, got there first and picked it off. On the very next play, Iowa’s Tyler Goodson went 80 yards for a touchdown and the 28-7 victory was complete. “That was not an easy play to make, especially down there in that situation,” Ferentz said of Campbell’s pick. “It really speaks to his football aptitude. I’m really excited he has more time on his clock here.”
Ferentz welcomes his 23rd Hawkeye team to spring practice on Tuesday. For the next five weeks, they’ll practice on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The final practice is May 1. “The big part of that is just seeing what stories are going to emerge,” Ferentz said. “Who is going to slide up the depth chart and show some improvement maybe we didn’t anticipate. That’s part of the fun of it all.”
Campbell became one of those stories last season, as did fellow linebackers Seth Benson and Dane Belton. It was a positive turn of events, because there were more questions than answers at that position before the 2020 season started.
Djimon Colbert, who started every game at weakside linebacker in 2019, decided to sit out the season. Kristian Welch, who started 10 games at middle linebacker, graduated. Dillon Doyle, who started two games at that same spot, transferred to Baylor.
And valuable time was lost when spring practice was canceled because of COVID-19. Add to that the fact that Benson didn’t play in the 2020 season opener at Purdue. Campbell missed the first three games with mononucleosis.
But the development of those two juniors, in particular, has changed expectations for the position a season later.
“Both those guys played really well for us,” Ferentz said. “They’re both outstanding guys. They’re doing a great job in the leadership capacity. You can tell they’ve been on the field, and in the program. They’re really young players, yet they’re really confident. That’s a great starting point. You can say the same thing about Dane (Belton). He’s done a great job at the outside linebacker/CASH position. We’ve got good experience and good quality there.” Benson, a 6-foot, 231-pound junior from Sioux Falls, S.D., had 13 tackles in his first career start last season against Northwestern. He never left the starting lineup again and was honorable mention all-Big Ten.
Nick Nieman led the Hawkeyes in tackles last season with 77 from the weakside linebacker position. Benson was the second-leading tacker with 47 stops from the middle linebacker spot. Campbell (6-5, 247, junior), who rotated in the middle with Benson, had 29 tackles. Campbell will replace Niemann at the weakside linebacker spot this season. Belton (6-1, 205, junior), who started nine games at the outside linebacker/CASH position over the last two seasons, had 33 tackles. He also started three games last season at strong safety.
Depth at linebacker comes in players like Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 235, sophomore), Jay Higgins (6-2, 219, sophomore) and Mike Timm (6-0, 234, junior).
“You look at a guy like Jestin Jacobs, who has missed some time with injuries,” Ferentz said. “We think he has a chance to be a really good football player. We’ll get him involved at a couple of different positions (this spring) at the linebacker spot. And with special teams, too. The same with Higgins and Timm.”
Campbell’s frame and athleticism makes him one player to watch as 2021 unfolds. “He’s just got a good feel for playing football,” Ferentz said.
The coach remembers watching Campbell play basketball at Cedar Falls High School as a junior.
“And it was not pretty,” Ferentz said. “He used his fouls quickly. But it was kind of interesting. A year later he turned into a pretty good basketball player. He’s always had a great attitude. He’s got great tools. And he really cares.”
The Tigers were a state runner-up in football in Campbell’s senior season, and won the state title in basketball. He saw action all 11 games as a true freshman at Iowa in 2019, and logged his first career start at Wisconsin. He came on fast last season, once he was healthy enough to play.
“He’s made a lot of good football plays for us,” Ferentz said.
Including one interception that has his name written all over it.