Not many people know new Detroit Lions linebacker Jack Campbell — the team’s 18th-overall pick — like Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. They crossed paths first in 10th grade, with Campbell playing high school ball in Cedar Falls—just 90 minutes off the campus he would attend a few years later.
“He’s a guy we’ve known and followed for quite some time,” Campbell said in a Zoom meeting with local Detroit media on Friday. “Comes out of a really good high school program. Was a guy we really kinda fell in love with in 10th grade. And really fortunate to have him in our program.”
Ferentz was quick to point out of the intangibles of Campbell, specifically his value in a locker room. He mentioned a specific incident during the Hawkeye’s 2022 season, Campbell’s second year as team captain for Iowa. Their defense had been carrying the team early in the year, and when the media was trying to needle him about carrying the extra weight from an impotent offense, Campbell jumped to their defense.
“Jack put an end to that really quickly with the media, basically explaining to them that we’re one football team and we all work together,” Ferentz explained. “That’s how he was in the building on top of it. As a coach, you respect that. We live in a world where people are trying to divide us all the time and he not only stayed strong but was very vocal about it.”
While Ferentz didn’t specify what exact moment this was, it seems quite likely it was this press conference after Iowa’s 7-3 win over South Dakota State.
“I’m not even going to get started on what you guys probably want me to talk about, but I think (the offense) did a hell of a job,” Campbell said passionately. “We’ve got a lot of young guys out there and they’re giving their full effort. And the coaches on the offensive side of the ball, they bust their butts every single day. They’re in the film room as much as anyone, so I feel for us, as defensive guys, we just take the field no matter what and we keep playing hard. There’s no time to point fingers or whine or complain, because the offense, they’re doing just as good of a job as us, in my opinion. For the outside world, everyone can point fingers and stuff like that, but when you’re in that locker room, you’re one team, you’re one unit.”
That sort of leadership, Ferentz notes, has the opportunity to shift a franchise completely. He saw it first hand when he was an offensive line coach for the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, and the team—in its first ever draft—selected linebacker Ray Lewis 26th overall.
“I’m not saying Jack is Ray Lewis, I’m just saying there’s probably some characteristics that are similar,” Ferentz said. “And when you get a player that’s really impactful, that’s important, I’m not here to say what the price should be for that, but what I told people in the NFL as they came through, was that one thing I can feel pretty confident saying: whoever drafts him is not going to let him leave the building over the next 10 years.”
“It’s not just what he brings as a player, it’s what he brings as a person and what he’s going to bring to the football team beyond making tackles or covering passes, those kind of things,” Ferentz said. “It’s really hard to have a good team–a championship-level team–without those kind of players.”
Ferentz is aware of the notion that off-ball linebackers aren’t perceived as highly valued as they once were in the NFL. But as the head of a gritty, tough Hawkeye’s defense for years, he believes having a middle linebacker like Campbell is essential to a successful defense.
“I don’t know how you play good team defense if you don’t have great linebackers,” Ferentz said. “It’s just kind of the core of things.”
As for his talent at the position, Ferentz pointed to Campbell’s unique size—6-foot-4, 249 pounds—combined with more athleticism than meets the eye. He’s a linebacker in a defensive end’s body, capable of playing anywhere along that front seven.
“I’ve told people, ‘If we had five Jack Campbells, all five would be starting. Two would have been our defensive ends and the other three would have been all three linebackers,’” Ferentz said. “He could have played any of the positions in our defense and I do think if he put on 25 pounds, 20 pounds, he could have played up front.”