Classes commenced at Maryland on Monday, and the first day of school wasn’t too early for Bruce Campbell to absorb one of his most important lessons of the year.
The hulking left tackle - all 6-foot-7, 312 pounds of him - wasn’t having the best of sessions. In turn, neither was the rest of an offense so reliant on the gigantic junior to steady things.
It had been said countless times since the Terrapins flew home from the Humanitarian Bowl on New Year’s Eve: Campbell and center Phil Costa would prove crucial to the team’s chances of matching or surpassing last year’s 8-5 record.
Sometimes those words lose meaning. Just days before Maryland opens its season at No. 12 California, the message was reinforced.
“It was a chain reaction with everybody else,” Campbell said. “The whole practice went down because it was all slack. I was like, ‘Now I know what it is. I can’t play like this.’ … It’s like a big responsibility. I don’t even have anything to compare it to. It just made me realize I got to hang strong this season, not even just for me but also for the younger guys.”
Strength is an asset Campbell possesses in surplus. He cuts an Olympian figure (Zeus is one of the many nicknames he answers to), and his athletic deeds seem to multiply by the week.
Unsurprisingly, he sets up as the next workout warrior to come out of a program that has sent Shawne Merriman, Vernon Davis and Darrius Heyward-Bey soaring up draft boards exiting the past five NFL combines.
And just think: He has concentrated on becoming an offensive lineman rather than dabbling as a defensive end, linebacker, tight end and kicker for a little more than two years.
“In all my years of coaching - 25 years here - of all the linemen I’ve coached and all the ones I’ve seen on the other side of the ball, I’ve never seen an offensive lineman built like Bruce,” said Dwight Galt, Maryland’s director of strength and conditioning. “Basically, he’s 310 pounds, and he’s ripped to shreds, and he has great movement. He’s a specimen. There’s not many that come along like that.”
‘A complete monster’
Campbell’s size isn’t stunning in familial context; his father, Bruce, is 6-9 and played basketball at Providence in the 1970s. His mother, Rita, is 5-11. But there is good reason their son is nicknamed Big Bruce.
At age 12, he was 6-1. He grew another 3 inches by the time he reached high school. At graduation, he was 6-6. Even without extended weight training, he made an instant impression when he arrived in College Park.
“I was like, ‘Who are you?’ And he was like, ‘I’ll be playing next to you,’ ” left guard Lamar Young said. “That kind of excited me. Impressive. In one word, he’s impressive.”
But he has taken some time to develop. He was tossed into action as a freshman, mostly after injuries decimated the offensive line. He didn’t start for half of last season, though coach Ralph Friedgen finally jiggered his lineup after Campbell came off the bench to provide one of the few solid performances in a shutout loss at Virginia.
The best Campbell moments, though, are often reserved for quieter situations. There was his fumble recovery in a scrimmage last month, which nearly led to a touchdown and might have created some ideas about Campbell’s viability as a goal-line back. Who is going to bring him down?
At the end of one-on-one passing drills back in high school, one lineman would throw his opponent to the ground - to the amusement of everyone watching. Costa figured he wouldn’t witness it again - until Campbell pulled it off.
“I haven’t seen too many people do that in college,” Costa said. “To be honest with you, I haven’t seen anybody who’s able to do that in college.”
Perhaps the finest tales are the ones Campbell tells in a deep voice befitting a man of his stature. Oftentimes, an opponent will peel himself off the ground after a pancake block, shake his head and mutter: “You’re too big, man. You just need to stop. I won’t ever do anything.”
That leaves Campbell to do little but chuckle and run the guy over again.
“When I hear that, I actually think: ‘My job here is done. Now I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing for the rest of the game just to solidify and make sure it’s all sealed up and done,’ ” Campbell said. “I pretty much try to keep doing something to them so that they’re [saying], ‘Wow, that’s a big person, and he’s physical and mean and played the whole game the same way.’ ”
Considering his run blocking only can improve as he learns how to remain low to prevent defensive linemen from gaining any leverage, it scares even teammates to think how good Campbell could be once his college career is over.
“Bruce is a complete monster,” receiver Adrian Cannon said. “He’s a freak of nature.”
Weight of the world
Galt calls Campbell “a big Vernon,” a nod to the ripped tight end who was the sixth pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. But there’s a chance Campbell could provide an even greater lift for the Terps than Davis, whose last two seasons coincided with the only times in the past eight years Maryland did not secure a bowl invitation.
He also could prove more useful than the previous massive lineman to pass through the program. That was Jared Gaither, who stayed only two seasons before academic issues sent him to the NFL’s supplemental draft and a productive career in Baltimore.
Campbell doesn’t possess Gaither’s sheer size, but he did bench-press 490 pounds this summer. He probably would have set the school record at 505 pounds but attempted it just after hitting 490 moments earlier.
But even that miss added to Campbell’s aura.
“There was so much weight on the bars [that] there almost wasn’t enough space,” quarterback Chris Turner said. “You had to put a little piece of tape on it to make sure it didn’t fall off. That’s how strong Bruce is. We don’t have enough weights for him in the weight room.”
Tales like those reinforce not only the remarkable asset the Terps have on their most vulnerable unit but also what a coveted commodity he will be in the future.
Yet he’s also a few months past his 21st birthday. Young said his mammoth teammate is occasionally the ringleader of the line’s outings, and Campbell acknowledged he sometimes has to hold back a smile when a much smaller coach points a finger in his face to make a point.
There’s little question, though, about his approach to his work: quiet, prideful and determined. He has found himself waking up in the middle of the night throughout camp, just pondering what it will be like to start the season. The NFL remains out of mind.
“I’m still in college,” he said. “I’m still at Maryland. I still have another season, and I probably have another two seasons to play in reality. I’ve got to get through this season before I can do anything to determine anything.”
This season could determine a great deal for Campbell. The Terps’ success hinges on his ability to protect Turner’s blind side as well as his unit’s ability to overcome a mediocre season by plugging into the lineup two former walk-ons and a sophomore who has barely played.
It’s a great onus on Campbell and Costa, the lone senior in the outfit. Campbell, though, fills a role nearly as large as he is - as this week’s domino effect during a rare lousy day showed everyone.
“If he dominates at that position, it could mean gigantic things for the program,” Galt said. “Physically, he is one of the most commanding presences in college football - just by the very nature of his size, by the way he’s built, by the way he carries himself.
“People just take one look at him and say, ‘Oh my gosh.’ ”