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Campbell Overcame Many Obstacles at Auburn

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 30, 2005

Second in a two-part series

AUBURN, Ala. -- Jason Campbell directed the Auburn Tigers on consecutive scoring drives to open the team's 2004 season against lowly Louisiana-Monroe, and the 80,000 Auburn fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium felt a decisive victory was under way. But late in the first half of this 31-0 victory, Campbell, the team's senior quarterback, was pressured as he dropped back to throw. A defender clipped his arm and his pass was intercepted.

The error was caused more by a breakdown along the offensive line than anything Campbell did. But as he headed for the sidelines, a portion of the home crowd booed. Freshman quarterback Brandon Cox had scored a touchdown for the Tigers on his first possession in the second quarter, and some fans thought he should take over.

Here we go again, they said. Campbell just can't get it done.

Another quarterback controversy -- the backdrop to what was now Campbell's fifth year on campus -- loomed.

It seemed unlikely that day -- only eight months ago -- that Campbell would go on to be named the Southeastern Conference player of the year and to have one of the best seasons in school history as he led Auburn to an undefeated record.

Even more remote was the idea that the Washington Redskins would select him in the first round of the NFL draft. A year ago, most scouts assumed that Campbell, 23, would not be drafted at all after three mediocre seasons running Auburn's offense, and, despite his strong senior year, many were surprised Washington took Campbell with the 25th overall pick.

But the traits Campbell exhibited during his time at Auburn, his determination and adaptability, are among the qualities that endeared him to Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, so much so that Gibbs traded three draft picks -- including next year's No. 1 -- to Denver for the rights to grab the 6-foot-5, 223-pound quarterback.

Campbell's career at Auburn was marked by adversity. He arrived heralded as the second-best high school quarterback in the country, yet spent much of his college career rotating in and out of the lineup. Campbell played under four offensive coordinators, and had to learn four different offensive systems in his final four seasons. Only under the last, Al Borges, did he flourish.

Entering last season, many Auburn fans had concluded that Campbell was washed up. The venom against the young quarterback poured forth on talk shows, Internet message boards and letters to the editor.

"There are some absolute horror stories I could tell you, and the reason I know is I had to listen to them," Borges said. "I came in here a year ago and everybody wanted to know if Jason was going to be replaced. . . . I would go to speak all over Alabama, and wherever I went I would get the same questions every time about the quarterback, and I quickly started to realize that, man, they don't like him."

Campbell reflects on those trying times with characteristic stoicism. "I think it helped me out a lot, having the opportunity to run four different offenses, and seeing the differences in each," he said. "You know how to approach each offense now, and this [in Washington] is the fifth offense I'm learning in five years, so I'm still on the move at this point."

Difficult to Please

Campbell nearly didn't attend Auburn. As a highly touted prospect at Taylorsville High School in rural Mississippi, Campbell was set to attend Louisiana State. But Tigers Coach Gerry DiNardo was fired 10 games into the 1999 season and Campbell and his family had no relationship with his successor, Nick Saban.

Georgia and Auburn were also in the running for Campbell, but Auburn quickly got the upper hand.

Don Dunn, a defensive line coach, had joined Auburn's staff from Mississippi in 1999, and brought a bond with the Campbell family with him. Dunn had watched Campbell throw as a youngster while recruiting players in Taylorsville, and tried in vain for years to sell him on Ole Miss. "We had all kind of fallen in love with Coach Dunn," said Campbell's father, Larry, an assistant football coach and head basketball coach at Taylorsville High.

Auburn's new coach, Tommy Tuberville, in his second season at the time after leaving Ole Miss, also wanted Campbell, and brought seven assistant coaches with him to impress the family on his visit to their home. It helped to lure the prospect their way.

Auburn's coaches opted to redshirt Campbell for his first year, extending his college eligibility by allowing him to practice and gain experience without playing in games. Dunn called Campbell's parents during preparations for the 2001 Citrus Bowl, where Campbell was leading the scout-team offense against the first-team defense, to say how well Campbell had been performing, and how impressed everyone was with his attitude. All signs pointed to Campbell taking over for good the following season.

As a freshman in the fall of 2001, Campbell started eight games, splitting quarterback duties with Daniel Cobb. His completion percentage (62.7) was the best ever by an Auburn freshman, but he threw only four touchdown passes and was intercepted four times as the Tigers went 7-5 and lost in the Peach Bowl.

Noel Mazzone, the offensive coordinator who preferred Campbell to Philip Rivers during recruiting (Rivers went to North Carolina State instead and was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft), was fired and replaced by Bobby Petrino. Campbell did not play regularly until the second half of 2002 -- still battling Cobb -- but went 5-1 as a starter, played in a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State and completed 63 percent of his passes. But he was far from the star that Auburn fans were expecting, and their frustration with Campbell was taking hold.

Petrino left before the 2003 season to become head coach at Louisville, and Hugh Nall was promoted to offensive coordinator. Finally the full-time starter, Campbell completed better than 61 percent of his passes for 2,267 yards, the sixth-best total in school history, but it was not the breakout junior season he had sought. He threw for 10 touchdowns, tossed eight interceptions and had little time to handle the ball, getting sacked 25 times during an 8-5 season.

"I really hurt for him, man," said senior defensive lineman T.J. Jackson, "because a lot of the time they booed him and it wasn't even his fault. I really felt for Jason because I know what that was like." During Campbell's visits home to Taylorsville, Shannon White, his high school coach, and Jeff Duvall, an assistant football coach and now the school principal, found themselves getting worked up. They felt Campbell's development was stalled by the turnover of offensive coordinators at Auburn. "A lot of people around here thought Jason was getting a raw deal there," Duvall said. Campbell's parents ached for their son, but he never spoke negatively about the Auburn team or its fans.

"He never complained or blamed a player or a coach for what he was going through," Larry Campbell said. "He knew he had to stay focused and get through it."

All the while, Campbell assumed a leadership role with his teammates. He helped lead meetings and routinely gathered players to his apartment to hang out. During the offseason, when coaches cannot be on the field with players, Campbell ensured everyone showed up for informal practices and workouts, guiding them through drills.

"He would be like the coach of the team; he'd run the whole practice," junior running back Tre Smith said. "He'd tell everybody where to go and at the end of the practice we'd all come up around him and he'd tell us how we did and give us speeches. All through the offseason when guys didn't really want to do stuff and didn't really want to work hard, he'd be the guy to get us to go."

Campbell gravitated to the younger players. If someone got in trouble, Campbell was there to help them out, teammates said. When Calvin Booker, a quarterback prospect from Atlanta, visited the school last year, Campbell told him he did not have to drink and party to have fun on campus.

"Jason doesn't even give it a chance to put himself in a bad situation," Booker, an Auburn freshman, said. "I remember on my visit he took me aside and said: 'Hey, those guys over there might be doing this and that, but that's okay. You can chill with me.' Jason doesn't even take the risk of being in a bad situation; he never puts himself where something like that can happen, and that comes from his upbringing."

Confidence Booster

A few weeks into spring practice last year, Campbell was telling teammates he finally felt at home under Borges, who arrived in Auburn from Indiana with the reputation of being a mentor to young quarterbacks.

Borges, who has coached for 32 years, is a proponent of the West Coast offense, a style that uses short passes to set up longer forays and spreads the defense with multiple formations. All of that meshed with Campbell's ability to throw on the run. Borges assured him it was okay to make mistakes, that he need not worry about being yanked from the game. This was his offense. This was his team.

"I've gotten a lot of credit for this guy," Borges said from his office overlooking Auburn's practice fields earlier this spring. "But truth be told, it was 99 percent Jason Campbell and one percent Al Borges. Let's be fair about this. But if there is one place I think I helped him, it is with his confidence. In the past I think he played scared and he was really concerned about making mistakes; rather than just getting out there and letting it rip, he was hesitant and indecisive and slow to react. So when I came in I told him, 'If you make a mistake, it's my job to correct it. We'll fix it and move on.' "

After watching tape of virtually every game Campbell had played at Auburn, Borges went back to basics. Footwork was their mantra, with the coach reinforcing the importance of proper drop-back technique, setting his hips to his target and following through. Balance and rhythm. Balance and rhythm. Borges repeated it over and over.

He never gave a thought to altering Campbell's throwing style -- "You don't mess with a kid who throws the ball that well," Borges said -- and tailored as much of his terminology as possible to fit what Campbell already knew. He determined that Campbell got bogged down in a classroom setting, so he did as much teaching as possible on the field, where Campbell could "body learn" through actions.

Campbell also started to harness his strong arm. "He had to learn to put a little touch on the football instead of throwing bullets all the time," Tuberville said.

The work began paying off. Borges brimmed with excitement before the 2004 season, but kept it inside. NFL scouts came around, but Campbell was on virtually no draft boards at the time. "Nobody had any great hopes for him," Borges said of the numerous scouts he spoke with.

Topped With Sugar

By Auburn's third game last fall, any doubts remaining in Borges's mind about his quarterback were gone. Auburn's fans were coming around, too.

In that game, Campbell completed a fourth-and-12 play to keep a drive alive and avoided a blitz as the clock ran down. With Auburn trailing fifth-ranked LSU 9-3, he made a brilliant throw under pressure to receiver Courtney Taylor for a game-tying touchdown with 74 seconds left. Auburn won the game on the extra point.

"That turned it right there," Borges said. "That turned public opinion around on him. He had taken some incredible hits -- and I am talking emotional more than physical -- and after that game he realized, 'Okay, the sky is the limit now. I've proven I can bring the team back and win, and now I'm going to prove I can knock some teams out and show I'm as good a quarterback as I was billed as coming out of high school.' "

In comments to the media after the LSU game, in what constituted a show of emotion by Campbell's standards, he said, "Maybe, they'll finally lay off me some."

By October, strangers were showing up at the apartment Campbell shared with running back Carnell Williams (Williams and fellow back Ronnie Brown were drafted in the top five last month), just to get the quarterback's autograph. Suddenly, Auburn was his town.

The team finished 13-0 with an SEC title and a Sugar Bowl victory. Campbell thrived in places like Knoxville, Tenn., where he organized the team and called audibles despite a din created by 108,000 fans in a 34-10 blowout. "He should have been in New York for the Heisman [Trophy ceremony]," senior linebacker Travis Williams said. "He's just a great leader."

By season's end, most scouts projected Campbell as a second-round pick.

"It was a whole evolution of his game in everything he did," said Auburn cornerback Carlos Rogers, who was selected ninth overall by the Redskins. "He has that poise of being calm in situations in the past where he got nervous and threw the ball away or threw a pick. Last year, he took the guys on his shoulders. He worked with the receivers way back in the springtime, and it evolved from there."

There are no guarantees where Campbell goes from there. The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that he will need at least two years of seasoning, and the Redskins do not seem inclined to rush him.

Borges said a lifetime spent around the game, and a tumultuous career at Auburn, have prepared him well.

"In terms of him being awed by the aura of the NFL, it's going to be less than any kid out there because he's been in lot of big games and he just kept getting better and better and more confident and more confident," Borges said. "He showed all the signs of being as good as any quarterback in the country, and I still say the Redskins got the best one. If somebody can give me a case for him not being the best one, I'm all ears, but I haven't heard it yet."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company