116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — It didn’t take long for Jack Koerner in 2019 — “probably only the first week” — to realize the new linebacker wearing No. 31 wasn’t like any other linebacker.
“This true freshman, he doesn't really know what's going on,” the Iowa safety said. “All he knows is get to the ball and get there fast and get there with aggression.”
After one “big hit,” fellow safety Kaevon Merriweather knew this 6-foot-4 freshman would be “a nasty linebacker” and “probably one of the best linebackers in the league.”
That true freshman was Jack Campbell, and Merriweather was right.
Two years later, he has a much better idea of what’s going on. But that tenacity still is there and playing a major role in Iowa’s unexpected trip to the Big Ten championship game.
“He's been inspiring the rest of the team to do that ever since he got here as a young guy,” Koerner said.
Campbell’s aggression has turned into results. He is one of three Big Ten defenders to average more than 10 total tackles per game and has three games in 2021 with 16 or more tackles.
Campbell’s list of fans includes Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.
“He’s got a nose for the ball,” Harbaugh said. “That’s probably the best thing you can say about a linebacker.”
A coach doesn’t need to look at much film to notice it.
“He does it repeatedly, time after time,” Harbaugh said. “He’s always in the frame making the tackle or really close to it.”
That makes life easier for the defensive backs working behind him.
“As soon as I see him moving to the ball, I just look where he’s going,” Merriweather said. “I just follow behind him sometimes.”
He wouldn’t mind if Campbell saved some of those 124 tackles for the secondary.
“Bro, he’s selfish,” Merriweather said jokingly. “I tell the linebackers every year they're selfish. They don't allow us to get no tackles.”
Seriously though, he’s more than happy to see Campbell constantly bustling his way to the ball.
“That’s also a great thing,” Merriweather said. “They get the job done where we don't really have to do much. I just have to make sure that he finishes the tackle.”
Ferentz said having Campbell at middle linebacker is important schematically for the rest of the defense.
“That position, like the quarterback, it's a position where things emanate right from there,” Ferentz said. “To build a good defense, to build anything, it helps to be good up the middle.”
Campbell’s dominance at the position reminded Ferentz of Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge and Josey Jewell.
“All three have different personalities, but really good players at that spot,” Ferentz said.
All three also had — or in Jewell’s case, still has — productive NFL careers. Campbell appears to be on his way to one as well. His ESPN+ profile ranks him as the 10th-best NFL Draft prospect at his position and 145th overall.
There certainly is no shortage of film for NFL scouts to devour of Campbell.
Campbell played in 85 or more snaps in seven of Iowa’s 12 games, according to Pro Football Focus, and his 832 defensive snaps are third-most among linebackers on Power Five rosters.
“He’s always going 100 percent,” Iowa linebacker Jestin Jacobs said. “You get the same Jack each and every day. He’s never taking a play off.”
When he talks to media — whether it’s after a game or after a morning at the practice facility — it’s common to see him with some kind of cut or scab, if not both.
“It’s not really a normal day unless Jack is out there bleeding or something,” Jacobs said. “Before I was like, ‘You know you’re bleeding?’ But he doesn’t really care. He’s just going to go out there and do it again. Open a new cut.”
Merriweather compared Campbell to "Leonidas in the Spartan charge,” a reference to the king in the ancient battle that inspired the movie “300.”
“He’s definitely always leading the pack,” Merriweather said. “He’s always in the middle of the fight. That’s why he’s got so many scars.”
He’s not one to prance in the spotlight with those battle scars.
Campbell spent his free Saturday last week — Friday’s game against Nebraska meant Saturday was an off day — about as far from the spotlight as possible.
“I was hanging out with my brothers, and we were actually hunting,” Campbell said.
He wasn’t totally disconnected from the outside world, though. He had his phone with him, and yes, that phone was streaming the Minnesota-Wisconsin game.
“I kept my eye on the game, but getting to be with my brothers was something that was kind of important to me at that time,” Campbell said.
Hunting has given him another way to connect with fellow linebacker Seth Benson, too. Both like to “keep to ourselves,” Benson said, and grew up hunting.
“This past year, we've gone hunting a lot more together,” Benson said. “Being from South Dakota, I’d say I’m better at pheasant hunting, but he’s definitely better with archery, turkey hunting, deer hunting, stuff like that.”
It’s not unusual for Campbell to keep a low profile off the field.
“He’s a pretty quiet guy, pretty calm dude,” Merriweather said. “He definitely turns into a whole different guy once he steps across those white lines. Then he turns into an animal.”
Campbell, who had few Division I offers out of Cedar Falls before committing to Iowa, embraces being an underdog on the football field.
“A lot of people kind of overlook us,” Campbell said. “If it’s used right, it can be a great thing.”
That’ll be important at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Hawkeyes aren’t as much of an underdog as King Leonidas was against the Persians, but they’ll be going against a Michigan team that sportsbooks have as a double-digit-point favorite.
“We’re just going to have to embrace being the underdogs and just roll with it,” Campbell said. “I'm just excited to get out there and have the opportunity to compete on Saturday.”
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