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His initial steps on a pro football field were not particularly memorable to anyone other than his friends and family. Jamal Campbell’s most recent on-field strides have been noticed by many.
The Toronto Argonauts offensive lineman’s first foray onto a pro gridiron happened at the Rogers Centre. He was in high school, and the on-field appearance was running onto the playing surface after an Argo game.
“I had just started playing football,” recalled the C.W. Jeffreys grad. “I’m in grade 10 and I’m running on the field with the Argos and my friends are like ‘you could be here one day.’ To this day I remember running onto the field.”
When he runs onto the field now it’s as the starting right tackle, the first time in his four years in Toronto he’s been more than a tight end in jumbo formations. It’s an indication of how far he’s come, especially more recently in his career.
As training camp opened, he was on the bubble. It was essentially time for him to show he was capable of living up to the expectations the Argos had when they made the York Lion their third-round selection in the 2016 CFL Draft.
He opened eyes in camp with his improved play, something that’s continued throughout the season.
“He’s progressed a lot, he’s learned a lot,” said Offensive Line Coach Dan Dorazio, who worked with Campbell for the first time this year. “He’s had his trials, but that’s how you learn. He’s plenty athletic and he plays with good intent. He’s got great desire to want to be a good football player.”
At 6’6”, 305 pounds, Campbell has the requisite size to play the position. His background as a basketball player has helped, especially when he made his most memorable play of the season. Campbell lined up as a tight end in a goal line formation against the Blue Bombers and released to the back of the end zone. He was uncovered and McLeod Bethel-Thompson found him for the one-yard TD pass.
“That touchdown is so important to me,” a now beaming Campbell told Argonauts.ca. “The only thing I can remember is that my career took off after that touchdown. I got the touchdown against Winnipeg, then the next week I got the start and I’ve been starting ever since.”
These final few games of the season could be hugely beneficial to Campbell in the long run. Centre Sean McEwen had to go through similar growing pains and understands the benefits his teammate will get from this starting stint.
“I think a lot of playing o-line in the CFL is just getting those live reps,” said the University of Calgary product. “There’s so many things that defences can do, you have to see some stuff before you’re really ready to play full speed. In my first year there was a time when the game slowed down for me and I started to see things before they’d happen.”
The additional reps have certainly enhanced Campbell’s level of confidence.
“I feel like I belong,” he admitted. “It doesn’t matter how much you prepare, it doesn’t matter how much film you watch, how much you read your playbook, there’s no experience like game experience. When I make a mistake in in a game, I know enough not to make that mistake again.”
He’s still got a long way to go on the learning curve and is looking to improve the nuances of the position, as opposed to learning the basics.
“I want to definitely improve on the little technical things that are going to make me better,” said Campbell. “I want to continue to get stronger, continue to get more technical with my feet, my hand placement, all of those things.”
The teacher concurs with the student in most areas.
“He needs to get stronger in his hips and his legs,” said Coach Dorazio. “I think that will make him a better football player. His footwork is much better, the big thing is his arms and his hands. He doesn’t flail like he was earlier in the year. Now he’s very patient with his hands, keeps them right there in front of him, and he punches pretty well now. He has a chance to take another step next year for sure.”
Campbell is eligible to become a free agent in early 2020. The fact that he’s a hometown player who spends a lot of time doing community work is something that may factor in whether he re-signs. The Argos will certainly be interested in bringing him back, and for good reason.