In terms of playing time and production, true freshmen tackles Kyree Campbell, T.J. Slaton and Elijah Conliffe were considered equals on the Florida defensive line last season.
At some point, though, Slaton and Conliffe were bestowed a nickname by then head coach Jim McElwain. The three defensive tackles were viewed differently from that point on.
While Slaton and Conliffe gained some fame as the Bam-Bam Boys, Campbell seemed to take on the role of Forgotten Freshman.
That continued into the spring. While Slaton and Conliffe battled for starting roles, Campbell sat out drills with an injured leg.
But this is a story that has changed dramatically since then.
Campbell is no longer the forgotten one among the three young defensive tackles. He’s a starter now, been one for the last four games, while Slaton and Conliffe have seen their playing time diminish in recent weeks.
How did this happen?
“Just hard work,” Campbell said “Grinding. Extra work.”
And toughness. And being physical. And playing with relentless effort.
Coming out of the loss to Kentucky, coach Dan Mullen and his staff demanded the Gators become tougher, more physical because of the way they got pushed around by the Wildcats.
The coaches started looking for some of that toughness and physicality in practice, and that’s when the once Forgotten Freshman started standing out.
He’s been a starter ever since, and he’s coming off the best performance of his young career. In the Gators’ victory over then-No. 5 LSU, Campbell had three tackles, one for a loss, recovered a fumble, broke up a pass and had a quarterback hurry.
Campbell has begun to emerge.
“Always looking for tough guys up front,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Always looking for physical guys.The guy has really good passion to play the game. He works at his craft and brings a certain physicality to that position.
“Anytime you can get a guy that has that size, that ability and has some passion to play the game and play that position and stick guys, knock them back and be stout, I think it’s going to help your run defense and your defense in general.”
Campbell’s productive and aggressive play may come as a surprise to some. Afterall, he was barely on the radar at the start of preseason camp after missing the spring.
But what he’s doing is no surprise to junior middle linebacker David Reese. He saw some of the same things from Campbell last season. It’s just that others may not have noticed because of that Bam-Bam thing going on.
“Even if you watch from his first season, he was still able to make plays, he was still getting pressure when he needed to,” Reese said. “We just had a veteran defensive line. And now it’s his time to come up. I always knew what he could do. We always believed in him.”
Campbell also has a strong belief in himself. That’s expected when you are a four-star prospect coming out of high school and your mentor is former Alabama All-American defensive lineman and current Detroit Lion Da’Shawn Hand.
Hand, the nation’s No. 1 prospect his senior year, and Campbell both went to Woodbridge (Va.) High School, and Hand took the younger Campbell under his wing several years ago.
Campbell now calls Hand his brother.
“He’s not my real brother, but he took care of me, mentored me,” Campbell said. “He really got me working on my speed, getting stronger and just the technical parts of the game, being able to read screens. Reading quarterbacks draws and stuff like that. You see where he is at now.”
Based on his recent performances, Campbell is now starting his own climb in his football career.
“Absolutely, (he has a big up side),” Grantham said. “He’s young, and he’ll continue to develop and grow. And we still have to develop him and work on some things. But anytime you play with effort and energy and have that physicality you’re going be able to help us in what we’re trying to get accomplished in our run defense.”
Being developed means having to accept coaching and putting in the time and effort. Campbell has no problem with that.
“I love to work,” he said. “If I’m not in the classroom or watching film, I’m asking my brother what to work on. I’m my biggest critic. My coach can criticize me. Even my mom, she won’t hold back. If I have a bad game, she’ll tell me.
“When it comes to getting better, you take it.”