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Curtis Compton/AJC
Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell had his best game as a Bulldog against Arkansas State.

Tyson Campbell ‘has his full confidence back’ heading into Notre Dame matchup

ATHENS — It was not the best freshman season for cornerback Tyson Campbell. The 5-star prospect entered the Georgia program with a ton of hype and ended up starting the first 10 games of the season.

But those first 10 games were filled with ups and downs. Playing opposite Deandre Baker — the best defensive back in college football last season — meant that Campbell got targeted frequently. And despite Georgia finishing with a top-15 pass defense in 2018, teams had success when targeting Campbell in pass coverage.

A season ago, Campbell had more pass interference penalties than pass deflections. After giving up another pass interference penalty against Auburn last year, Kirby Smart had seen enough. He subbed in Eric Stokes for the struggling Campbell. That very same drive, Stokes broke a pass in the end zone that forced an Auburn field goal. Stokes would go on to start for Campbell for the rest of the season.

Campbell did regain his starting spot in the Texas loss after Baker announced that he would be sitting out the game. But Campbell has been battling with newcomers D.J. Daniel and Tyrique Stevenson to lock up the other starting spot outside of Stokes. Campbell has started the first two games, but Daniel and Stevenson have also seen significant reps at the position as well.

Smart spent a good amount of time last week praising Arkansas State’s wide receivers. The Bulldogs were going to be tested once again through the air, and given that teams don’t much like throwing in the direction of Stokes — he’s really, really good — the Red Wolves made it a point to try and go after Campbell.

And the sophomore cornerback delivered his best performance yet. Campbell had 3 pass deflections — more than he had in all of last season — while surrendering zero completions on five targets, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I’d say he’s more confident,” Smart said of Campbell. “You can’t help but be more confident when you go through a rookie season, you’re playing in the SEC and you’re playing opposite of D. Baker (Deandre Baker). So he got a lot of throws last year.”

Prior to his time at Georgia, Campbell hadn’t played a ton of cornerback. He spent more time at safety at American Heritage High School — the same school that produced the likes of Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie — than he had at cornerback.

That inexperience showed up at times last year as Campbell always seemed to be in a position to make a play, but could never put it all together. Sometimes he’d turn his head the wrong way when trying to locate the ball or simply lose track of his wide receiver that he was assigned.

Campbell has all the ideal athletic traits you’d want from a cornerback: He’s got the wingspan of a condor, a 6-foot-2 frame that allows him to match-up with bigger-bodied receivers and clocked a 10.39 in the 100-yard dash as a senior.

And now a year older it looks he’s putting everything together. The Arkansas State game was pretty clearly the best game he’s had in a Georgia uniform.

“He’s a year older, a year stronger and a year more mature,” Smart said. “He understands the system better and it allows him to play with a little more confidence.”

Another example of Campbell’s improvements came in the Vanderbilt game. The Commodores ran a double pass and tight end Jared Pinkney was wide open on the play. He wasn’t Campbell’s responsibility on the play, but the sophomore cornerback was the only player in the area who could make a play on the ball and prevent a touchdown. He leaped into the air and perfectly timed a hit that separated Pinkney — who was flagged for being an ineligible receiver downfield — from the ball.

A year ago, Campbell doesn’t make that play. Just like he probably doesn’t make those three pass breakups against Arkansas State.

But it wasn’t all good for Campbell on Saturday. He did suffer a foot injury that has his practice status uncertain for this week. Smart said the hope is for him to be okay, but it won’t be fully known until later in the week. DawgNation did see Campbell walking off the field with no noticeable limp at the conclusion of Saturday’s game without any assistance. But the sophomore was also spotted on Monday morning wearing a black walking boot.

Related: Kirby Smart updates Georgia football injuries ahead of Notre Dame game

Assuming Campbell does end up playing, he along with Georgia’s fellow defensive backs, will have their hands full trying to defend 6-foot-5 Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool and quarterback Ian Book.

But with his regained confidence, Campbell is entering this huge matchup playing the best football of his Georgia career.

“He’s got his confidence back,” safety J.R. Reed said of Campbell. “This year, I just told him he has to get his confidence back. Next play mentality. Don’t worry about what’s happened before. What you saw on Saturday was a guy who had his full confidence back.”

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