ATHENS – The difficulties of playing cornerback in football increase exponentially as one moves up the ranks. Nobody has to remind Tyson Campbell of this reality because he lived it this past season.
Campbell, who signed with Georgia as a 5-star prospect out of Fort Lauderdale this year, earned the rare distinction of becoming not only a 10-game starter for the Bulldogs as a true freshman corner this season, but a first-game starter, as well.
That Campbell did NOT start the last three games of his freshman season is equally notable. But he’s choosing not to make a fuss about either designation.
“It was tough, it was fun,” Campbell said of his first season as a college football player. “But, at the same time, it was a wake-up call, a learning experience. I feel like I learned a lot about football. And, you know, it’s just an all-learning year for me to get ready for next year.”
Indeed, Campbell got the proverbial trial by fire this season playing the corner opposite of All-American and Jim Thorpe Award recipient Deandre Baker. From the outset, he found himself — and his side of the field — under attack.
Campbell was exploited in the second game of the season at South Carolina as veteran receiver Bryan Edwards beat him twice for touchdowns. He also struggled in games against LSU and Auburn.
There were good times as well, though. Like the trip to Missouri in Week 4 when Campbell scooped up fumble on one bounce and returned 64 yards for a touchdown. That would end up being a short day for Campbell, however, as he suffered a shoulder injury in the first half and did not return.
His replacement that afternoon was redshirt freshman Eric Stokes, who did some great work in relief. Stokes finished the Missouri game with four pass-breakups and blocked-punt touchdown.
Campbell returned to the starting lineup the next week, but the competition with Stokes for playing time would continue. Finally, in the 10th game of the season against Auburn, Georgia coaches subbed in Stokes for a struggling Campbell after a second pass-interference penalty. Stokes finished the game, then started the last three for the Bulldogs.
Speaking with reporters for the first time all season after the SEC Championship Game last week, Campbell has taken the demotion in stride and claims no hard feelings.
“Not every job is secure,” Campbell said after Georgia’s 35-28 loss to Alabama. “You’ve always got to have that chip on your shoulder. Anybody can be replaced. I’m not mad or anything. I’m supporting my teammates. I’m just ready to move forward.”
Campbell’s first season was definitely a rollercoaster. His season high for tackles came against LSU when he finished with 11. But part that was mainly because he was tackling receivers downfield.
He finished with 42 tackles, which was fifth on the team, but ended up with only one pass breakup and no interceptions. Stokes had eight pass breakups, including one in the end zone against Alabama.
“We’ve talked for a long time about we’re going to play the players that play the best,” Smart said after the Auburn game. “I still think Tyson Campbell is a really good football player.”
Campbell feels like he has identified his primary problem.
“I panic sometimes,” he said last week. “Other than that, I’m working real hard in practice and staying focused. I feel I’ve got a bright future and I’m not really stressing or worrying about anything.”
Georgia’s coaches believe Campbell has a bright future as well. The reason he was in the starting lineup in the first place is his tremendous speed. A two-time state champion in the 100- and 200-meter at American Heritage High, he remains one of the fastest players on the Georgia team.
Meanwhile, Campbell’s getting a lot of help on his DB skills. Baker, who came to Georgia as a 3-star prospect out of Miami and didn’t start until midway through his sophomore season, is one of Campbell’s primary tutors.
“He’s helped me develop a lot, taught me a lot,” Campbell said. “I’m like a sponge out there with Coach Tuck and Coach Smart and the older guys in the secondary. They all teach me a lot and I just take whatever they tell me and just try to input it into my game.”
Georgia needs to Campbell to remain alert and motivated. Regardless of who starts the rest of the way at left cornerback, both he and Stokes are sure to be in the Bulldogs’ plans as Baker moves on to the NFL.
Regardless of how it went this season, Campbell knows his script isn’t written yet.
“It’s football,” he said. “Things are going to happen. It’s a rollercoaster. There’s going to be swings. … I just have to focus on what’s ahead of me now.”