Campbell must take a stand

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Will Campbell is slimmer, to the point where Michigan coach Brady Hoke actually has asked the defensive tackle to add weight instead of the continual plea throughout Campbell's career to shed pounds.

Campbell is more dedicated, consistently talking to his mentor, former Michigan lineman and NFL defensive lineman Brandon Graham, as well as Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger for advice.

He has taken on a leadership role, becoming a big brother to incoming freshman defensive lineman Ondre "Pee Wee" Pipkins, who like Campbell, arrives at Michigan an oversized defensive tackle with large expectations.

For all of Campbell's positives, though, one obvious question remains. Can he actually play at a high level with any sort of consistency? For all of the platitudes placed on him by his coaches and his teammates, for all of his renewed self-confidence and determination, the answer is, no one really knows.

They can guess -- and Hoke is guessing Campbell will have a good season -- but even he can't be positive whether the Campbell who barely played his first three seasons can transform into a productive player. He won't know until Sept. 1.

"Some guys, they get in front of those big crowds and don't quite play as well as maybe they practiced," Hoke said. "I just like his work ethic and what he's done, not just physically, but the mental part of playing football."

Campbell has fed off the positivity from his teammates throughout the offseason, often pointing to them as a reason why he believes he is going to be an improved player as a senior. He also looks to how he actually feels after practice. Instead of laboring through and struggling to catch his breath like in past years, he feels in shape. He feels sharp. His lateral movement is as good as it has ever been, too.

He also sees a chance to play. Those same mentors he continually speaks to also impeded his path to playing time for three-quarters of his career. Now, no one is in front of him, so he has no choice.

He has to play well, or Michigan won't do well.

"It was not more confidence," Campbell said. "I had to step up, and this is the time to do it. It's my last go-round, and I owe Michigan and these fans a lot."

What does he owe them?

"I came in with big expectations and didn't live up to them," Campbell said. "Now, it's time to play."

Campbell has played in every game the past three seasons but never started one. He has 17 career tackles -- 14 of them last season -- and two career sacks -- both of them last season -- and has never made more than three tackles in a game. He has played offensive line and defensive line and for one snap as a sophomore, fullback.

With playing and leading comes added responsibility. No longer will he be able to sit and watch Martin and Van Bergen and then try to take advantage of being fresh when he substituted in for them for a few snaps.

Now, he'll be on the field for the first defensive snap of the season, facing the best opposing offensive line of his career in Alabama. It'll be the first time he has started since he was a high school student at Michigan pipeline Cass Tech in Detroit.

When he thinks about it, though, it isn't all a positive.

"I've been dreading it; not dreading it, but it's been in the back of my mind," Campbell said. "It's been in the back of my head, that I'm going to be the one like, yeah, I'm going to be the one to get the first snap at the centers and the guards."

Being the old man with little experience, Campbell has turned again to the players before him, who continually give him confidence that yes, he can become the player he expects to be -- even if there is little tangible proof.

The first game, they tell him, will be rough. After that, they tell him, he'll settle in and be fine.

By then, Michigan will know exactly what it might have in Campbell, whether all of the praise from the coaches and players has been warranted. Until then, they just have to keep believing in the slimmed-down, in-shape, finally dedicated Will Campbell, because he is the best they've got.

"It would help our team an awful lot," Hoke said. "He's got a great attitude and really become a tremendous leader of our football team in a lot of ways."

Now, he just has to become the equivalent of what the Michigan program thinks of him off the field and in practice during games.