At nearly 6 feet 6 inches, with dreadlocks spilling out of the back of his helmet, Gophers junior linebacker De’Vondre Campbell looks like touted NFL prospect Jadeveon Clowney when he blitzes quarterbacks.
There are vast differences between Campbell and Clowney, a near-lock to be a top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Still, many think Campbell has the potential to be a first-round pick down the road.
“He has a great future ahead of him if he keeps doing everything he needs to do,” head coach Jerry Kill said.
This season, the Gophers will lose Ra’Shede Hageman, Brock Vereen, Aaron Hill, James Manuel and others, and Minnesota needs to find playmakers.
Hageman led the Gophers with 13 tackles for loss last year. Hill had a team-high two interceptions and tied for a team-high two fumble recoveries. Manuel excelled at breaking up passes and returned an interception for a touchdown. And Vereen was the unquestioned leader of the defense.
Still, losing those players doesn’t necessarily mean the defense will lack skill next season. A new leader, senior safety Cedric Thompson, has emerged and said he thinks the defense is further along now than it was during last year’s spring practices.
“We’re a lot more mature,” he said. “We have guys that played last year.”
But Thompson also said he knows replacing a force like Hageman will be tough.
Campbell, who’s often compared to Hageman, might be the player with the greatest chance of having such an impact.
“I don’t try to think about it too much,” Campbell said. “I’m just focused on bettering my game right now.”
Campbell, listed at 225 pounds, will need to add a few dozen pounds to have a Hageman- or Clowney-like impact on the gridiron.
He said he’s been watching his diet closely to make sure he can get to that point.
“I took it upon myself to gain weight, because I felt like for me to be the player that I want to be, I have to,” he said. “I’ve put on about eight or nine [pounds this offseason], but I’m nowhere close to where I want to be.”
Campbell’s stats last season didn’t jump of the stat sheet, but in 13 games, he had 41 tackles and forced a fumble.
It was a good start for a player who had played at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kan., before he arrived on the University campus.
Kill, a Kansas native with strong ties to the area, said he was lucky to nab Campbell.
Kill said a few coaches at Hutchinson played for him in the past, which helped flip Campbell’s commitment after he initially committed to Kansas State. Campbell, a three-star recruit, also had offers from Tennessee and Texas.
Kill said Campbell looks more confident and comfortable in spring practice after a getting full season under his belt.
“I think I’ve grown physically and mentally,” Campbell said. “I’ve put on at least 15 pounds since I’ve been here, and mentally … I learned the system more. I started studying film … looking at little things I can improve on.”
Those little things could push him toward a breakout season this year.