- Marissa McClain/Daily
By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 31, 2011
NEW ORLEANS — The Michigan football team gathered in front of the stage as Van B and Big Willy Style made their way through the crowd. The atmosphere buzzed, waiting for the first act on the mic at the team’s bowling night.
Will Campbell had signed himself and Ryan Van Bergen up without telling Van Bergen. But Van Bergen confidently started rapping lyrics, “straight from the dome,” as he later described it.
Got Big Will sitting next to me, just chillin’,
You know me and him and all the ladies we be gettin’.
All the little girls, but he just likes the big ones,
They all weigh a lot — probably a metric ton.
What was supposed to be a rap duet seemed like a rap battle when Campbell raced through his rhymes, which were loud and undistinguishable. His teammates booed.
The hype was there, but his effort lacked.
Van Bergen spit a few more “hooks,” while Campbell danced and posed for the crowd. In the aftermath, it was clear Van Bergen won what wasn’t supposed to be a rap battle at all.
“He definitely beat Will,” said senior defensive tackle Mike Martin. “Will was up there jibber-jabbering. I don't think Will said one word. I think someone thought that Van Bergen was insulting him when he said (Campbell) liked big girls. But he loves big girls, he'll be the first one to tell you. That's a compliment to him. He was smiling about it.”
Somewhere in the crowd was fifth-year senior defensive tackle Will Heininger, who sported a black boot protecting a sprained right foot and a set of crutches. His status for the Sugar Bowl is still in doubt.
Should Heininger be unable to go, Campbell would get the call. It would be his first start of the season.
Earlier that night, Campbell sounded contrite, remarking about why he — a former five-star recruit and behemoth of a man — had not lived up to expectations.
The junior defensive tackle admitted what was holding him back: “I would probably say myself. Just being more consistent. I mean it’s the truth. I’ll always tell the truth, so it’s not hard to admit.
“That’s what they preach to me the most. I can’t keep doing that. … Some plays I play like an All American. The next play I look like an average D-III tackle.”
Something as simple and correctable as effort held Campbell back, while other roadblocks were torn down. Once overweight, he has trimmed down to a svelte 315 pounds.
“It’s not that hard, if coach (Brady) Hoke’s in your ear telling you (that) if you don’t do it, the worst is going to happen,” Campbell said of losing the weight. “I’d rather just stay low and keep my weight down.”
Campbell started eating right and working out more. Previously at 338 pounds when Hoke first met him, Campbell felt renewed. The new strength program instituted by coach Aaron Wellman made the 6-foot-5 Campbell stronger. The “rep to failure” method, which requires players to lift until they can’t anymore, taught Campbell to push through barriers.
“After I lost the weight, I felt how good it felt to move and be able to run much better than I ever had before,” Campbell said. “So I decided to keep it (off).
“I feel like I can run for days. I just feel a lot better, more stamina every day.”
His ego, which birthed his reputation as a loaf, started to melt away. Following the lead of the three senior defensive lineman, Van Bergen, Martin and Heininger, Campbell said he studied film. Since the Ohio State game, he spent extended periods of time with Heininger. The perfect teacher, Heininger became a student of the game while sitting on the sidelines himself. He taught Campbell how to study opposing offensive lines and how to complement his fellow defensive linemen.
It took some maturing, but Campbell bought in.
“When he first got here, he kinda had a little bit of an ego about him: he was a freshman, and with the five-star (rating),” Van Bergen said. “He has really humbled himself.”
Three coaches humble him every day in practice. Hoke personally coaches the interior defensive linemen, while defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is a former defensive line coach and Jerry Montgomery is the current defensive line coach.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” Campbell said. “If you mess up, everybody’s going to say it. If you do something good, the other three coaches are going to find something you did wrong.”
Campbell is probably the most criticized player on the team, Van Bergen said. With Heininger out, and Van Bergen and Martin enjoying much-needed rest, Campbell has the coaches keying in on him during Sugar Bowl practices.
“They’re getting into him,” said junior defensive end Craig Roh. “(Campbell’s) embracing it, and it’s tough to go five plays in a row sometimes. He’s doing it and he has a great positive attitude.”
Van Bergen said that’s the difference: Campbell is accepting his mistakes, realizing fault and making adjustments. Previously, Van Bergen thought Campbell just dismissed criticism.
“I just feel like I’ve been more coachable,” Campbell said.
A few other loose ends needed attention this season. Montgomery showed him how staying low and playing with a wider base would help. The coaches asked him to master three positions — both defensive tackle spots and the five-technique, so he can back-up Van Bergen.
Watching the three seniors opened his eyes. What stood out to Campbell was their effort and how relentlessly they go to the football. The result: Mattison said Saturday that Campbell's effort has been "excellent" during the bowl practices.
Van Bergen never discussed Campbell’s lack of effort or consistency with him. That, he said, was left for the coaches. Instead, Van Bergen made sure to play as hard as he could every play, then ask Campbell: “I ran to the ball — why didn’t you run to the ball?”
“Once he gets to where he could be — because he’s in tremendous shape for being 315-plus pounds — I mean, he could be the first guy to the ball every time,” Van Bergen said.
“When you’re biggest guy is the guy running to the ball the most … you’ll have a good defense, because everyone else will be motivated by that.”