Navy's Reggie Campbell smiled as a Kent State player stared down the diminutive sophomore slotback and uttered a comment before the teams' game last Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"I'm out there on the field warming up and the guy looks at me," Campbell said. "And then he says, 'Here comes the midget squad.' "
Campbell laughed. He has heard the same quips since he first put on shoulder pads 10 years ago. He's always been one of the shortest players on the field in a game where players are getting bigger every year.
At 5 feet 6, 164 pounds, Campbell is one of the smallest players in Division I-A football, yet he has made a big impact for the Midshipmen (3-2), who will face Rice (0-5) in Houston tonight looking for their third four-game winning streak in the past 25 years.
"Ever since Reggie started playing football in the back yard, we've talked about his size," said Reginald Campbell, Reggie's dad. "Look, God made him 5-foot-6, and that's just the way it is. There is nothing he can do about it."
So Campbell compensates for his lack of height with speed and strength. He bench-presses 310 pounds, best among the team's slotbacks, which makes him one of the key players in an offense that averages close to 30 points. Campbell's versatility enables him to gain yards by taking a pitch on an option play or by getting open in the secondary.
"I think what sets Reggie apart is his explosiveness," quarterback Lamar Owens said. "If he has the ball in the open field, I'll take my chances with him against anyone in the country. He can make people miss. I remember the first time he practiced as a freshman and we saw what he could do. We haven't had someone like that around here in awhile."
This season, Campbell has rushed for 165 yards and a touchdown on 21 attempts, but none was bigger than his final carry against Air Force on Oct. 8. With Navy trailing 24-17, Owens took the snap and ran around the left side of the line, and as the defense converged, lateraled to Campbell, who raced down the sideline for a tying 40-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes 22 seconds remaining. Navy won the game, 27-24.
"Every time I get the ball, I just get in a zone," said Campbell, who also has seven receptions for 141 yards, an average of 20.1 yards per catch. "I know I have to prove myself because everyone just sees me as this little guy trying to play football."
"What's really surprised me about Reggie is that he has run through some tackles," Coach Paul Johnson said. "He's actually run through more tackles than he's juked or made people miss. I thought he would be really hard to tackle on the perimeter from a juke standpoint, but really he's run through more guys."
Campbell also is on the punt coverage team, and he forced a fumble against Stanford that senior Marco Nelson recovered and returned for a touchdown. He also returns kickoffs, as he's second on the team with 85 return yards. Not bad for a player who was only recruited by one Division I-A school: Navy.
After spending the 2003 season at the Naval Academy Prep School, Campbell showed flashes of brilliance last season. The first time he touched the ball, he caught a 30-yard pass against Tulsa and finished the season with 42 rushing yards on four carries and was one of three freshmen to earn a varsity letter.
"You know what the thing about here is? I have learned that you better not base an opinion on anyone until after their freshman year, because it varies," Johnson said. ". . . I've seen guys here over the last four years that as freshmen I wouldn't give you a plug nickel for their chances of ever playing and they end up being really good players, because it takes some longer to get over Plebe summer. We thought Reggie would be a good player. He wasn't probably as fast a year ago as I thought he would be and now he is. I think he got his legs back. There's no question he's a better player this year."