Tyson Campbell an example of Georgia’s extraordinary depth on defense

Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell (3) follows the commands of coach Charlton Warren during one of the Bulldogs’ preseason practices in Athens, Ga., on Wed., Aug. 26, 2020. (Chamberlain Smith/UGA)
Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell (3) follows the commands of coach Charlton Warren during one of the Bulldogs’ preseason practices in Athens, Ga., on Wed., Aug. 26, 2020. (Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Credit: Chamberlain Smith

Credit: Chamberlain Smith

ATHENS -- Tyson Campbell stands as a shining example of why there is so much excitement about – and respect for -- Georgia’s defense in 2020.

Campbell is a defensive back, a former 5-star prospect out of south Florida. He’s fast, as in sub-4.5-40 fast, as in former Florida 100- and 200-meter state champion fast. He’s tall and rangy at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. All these measurables are why, before he takes a snap as a college junior, Campbell gets some first-round grades from NFL draft analysts.

Then there’s this: Campbell started three games for the Bulldogs last season. And this: He may not start this season either.

About all that, Campbell does not seem at all stressed. In fact, he sounds pretty fired up about his situation.

“You want to have guys pushing you,” Campbell said Monday night after the Bulldogs' 13th preseason practice. “That’s the best part of playing at Georgia.”

This is not to say that Campbell hasn’t lived up to his potential. Far from it. He started 11 games at cornerback in 2018 and played in all 14, something few freshmen are able to do.

That he started only three games and played in nine last season does not signify regression. It’s more about the depth and philosophy of the Bulldogs' defense.

Basically, there really aren’t starters and backups on Dan Lanning’s unit. There are mainly just roles, and Campbell has an important role this season, as he did last year. Barring injury, you’ll see him on the field a lot.

That was Campbell’s primary issue last year. He was sidelined early in the season with a turf-toe injury that caused him to miss the Notre Dame game and most of the next four. He started the first three games of the season.

But while Campbell was fighting through that extremely painful malady, junior college transfer D.J. Daniel proved he was more than up to the task of filling in. Daniel started the last 11 games.

As a result, defensive backs coach Charlton Warren was able to ease Campbell back into the mix. By the Florida game in Week 9, the Bulldogs had one of the “baddest” nickel/dime/corner groups in the country.

“The whole defense has a lot of depth,” Campbell said. “There’s talent all over the place, offense and defense, special teams. That’s what makes our practices so competitive and why everybody’s getting better each and every day.”

Daniel is still at the field-corner position that he and Campbell share. Opposite them is junior Eric Stokes, a preseason All-SEC defensive back who unseated Campbell in 2018. Sophomore Tyrique Stevenson and junior Ameer Speed stand ready in relief. The Bulldogs' signed blue-chip prospects Jalen Kimber and Kelee Ringo to insure that the talent infusion continues.

So where does Campbell fit in to all that? Actually, pretty much anywhere coach Kirby Smart and Warren want to put him. Campbell remains a cornerback, but the Bulldogs are utilizing him often as somewhat of a “Star.” In coach Kirby Smart’s defense, that’s an extra defensive back with specific responsibilities. Campbell comes on the field in passing situations to play the “Money” position, which replaces an inside linebacker to alternately cover receivers or rush to the quarterback in a wickedly quick fashion.

Campbell loves it, and it should allow him to make big plays for the Bulldogs. He has shown a knack for that even in limited opportunities his first two seasons. Georgia fans will recall his 64-yard scoop-and-score against Missouri in 2018. In fact, all three fumble recoveries in his career have resulted in scores. He also had a fumble-return TD against Kentucky as a freshman and recovered a fumbled punt in the end zone against Georgia Tech last year.

But one is liable to see him come on the field at pretty much any position this season, including safety and on special teams.

“As a defensive back, coach Smart encourages everybody to have versatility,” Campbell said. “Just in case somebody goes down, other guys will know that position and be comfortable getting in the game.”

Using lots of players has been a cornerstone principle of Georgia’s defense under second-year coordinator Lanning. The Bulldogs had more than 30 players play 100 or more snaps last season. Not coincidentally, they led the nation with fewest points allowed (12.6 ppg) and rushing defense (74.6 yards per game).

That has required some humility and patience from former 5-star prospects such as Campbell, inside linebacker Nakobe Dean and defensive end Travon Walker. But buy-in has come with the team’s on-field success.

“That helps a lot,” said Walker, who did not start a game as a freshman. “It keeps guys fresh, let’s us get fresh guys in on third down, being able to push the pocket. … Rotating a lot of guys gets a lot of guys snaps and experience for the years down the road.”

Campbell said that is what it has done for him. Looking back at it now, he can’t believe how much of a different and more knowledgeable player he is today than when he showed up as a coveted signee in 2018.

“I’ve matured so much as a player, coming in young, not really knowing the defense,” Campbell said. “But the coaches have developed us and given us experience in the games. That develops you mentally as far as getting your (football) IQ better. I’ve also gotten stronger and faster, the whole nine yards of being a better athlete.”

More important, Campbell is a healthy athlete. It has been almost a year since he suffered that dreaded turf-toe injury. He finally is able to play without pain.

“Last year was tough, but Mr. Ron (Courson) and the whole training staff have helped me and healed me,” Campbell said. “They made sure if I was going to be on the field I’d be 100 percent ready. So, I thank them for that. I’m pain-free and excited for the season.”