ELON — Fast to grasp new concepts and swift to strike with impactful plays, Tyler Campbell has fit in while standing out for the Elon football team.
His arrival has become a welcome marriage, the Army transfer finding what he wanted in a home for his final two seasons and Elon adding a ready-made performer to fill an area of need on defense.
Even if he had yet to play a down as a college defender.
"Leaving West Point, I wanted to go somewhere where I could contribute just as much or even more," he said, "and moving over to defense, I was looking forward to it. There's a lot of excitement on defense. When big plays happen, everybody's juiced up."
As No. 23 Elon (3-1) meets No. 19 Albany (3-1) on Saturday in a Colonial Athletic Association matchup of nationally ranked teams in the FCS, Campbell, now a junior safety roaming the Phoenix's defensive backfield, has proven to be a constant generator of that game-shaking energy.
Three weeks ago, he delivered 15 tackles, with two of them for lost yardage, in Elon's dramatic victory at Furman. Most recently, he grabbed an interception and pounced on a pair of fumbles at Richmond, three takeaways that helped apply the foundation for Elon's 36-33 upset, its second defeat of a top 25 opponent in as many weeks.
Campbell clobbered Richmond punt returner Tyler Wilkins at full speed last week to force a fumble that he then recovered with a one-arm stab, an all-out special teams effort that positioned the Phoenix to go ahead 19-7 late in the first half.
Earlier in the second quarter, while tracking Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta from the Elon defense's Cover 2 package – "his eyes brought me out there," Campbell said – he broke on a throw and swooped in for the interception that led to an Elon field goal.
"Some guys are just really wired to make good decisions on the field," first-year Elon coach Curt Cignetti said. "There's a lot of multiples in football and when the ball is snapped there's a lot of things going on, and some guys diagnose things real quickly and are always in position doing what they're coached to do. He has consistently been one of those guys."
Cignetti said Elon defensive coordinator Tony Trisciani has made the comment that Campbell might be the quickest learner he has coached.
Speedy mental agility had to be an asset in Campbell's transformation from slotback in Army's triple-option offense, where he had moments that included touchdown runs of 29 yards against rival Navy and 70 yards against North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, to free safety in Trisciani's system at Elon that employs five defensive backs.
Elon opened preseason camp trying Campbell at cornerback, before shifting him to safety a few days later. He said he leaned on hard-hitting Chris Blair, the most-veteran starter on Elon's defense, and Efrim Borders, a convert from receiver, as guiding voices while absorbing what's required of Elon's safeties.
"Coach Trish told me that I was going to see the field faster if I went to safety," Campbell said, referring to Trisciani. "Once I heard that, I was like, 'I've got to get in the playbook and learn as much as I can as quick as possible.'
"So I just asked a lot of questions. 'CB' and Efrim, they helped me a lot. For that first week, they basically held my hand and they were calling everything that I was supposed to be calling, until I could get it down myself."
He played alongside Elon offensive lineman Alex Higgins at Peachtree Ridge High School in Georgia, so there was an immediate bond in place. During the spring, Elon hired Brian Phillips from Army as its director of strength and conditioning, forming another link for Campbell, who had spent two years training under Phillips.
Trisciani's relationship with Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman created another connector. Bateman was Elon's defensive coordinator from 2006-10, and Trisciani coached the Phoenix's defensive backs during one of those seasons.
Campbell said he picked between Elon and Georgia State in choosing his transfer destination. The most difficult part of the process, he said, was cementing the decision to leave Army, something he wrestled with for two months.
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"It's West Point," he said explaining the dilemma. "Not everybody gets that opportunity."
Campbell said the commitment cadets are expected to make before starting their junior year of classes, an oath to finish their courses and then serve five years in the military after graduating, weighed the heaviest.
"It really came down to the commitment," he said. "I'm definitely glad I had the experience. Met a lot of great people, learned a lot of great things. But when it came down to it, I had to make the right decision for myself."
Because he transferred down a level from the bowl subdivision to the FCS, Campbell was eligible to play right away at Elon, where he also has become the team's leading kickoff returner, with four 30-yarders or more during the last two games.
Hump Day is the perfect day to prep for Saturday.— Elon Phoenix (@elonphoenix) September 27, 2017
Buy food & drinks
Do laundry (aka, wash your gear)
Get your pic.twitter.com/rB2u6fB2Gw
Elon had finished its session of spring practices before he came on board, but by the start of August training camp, Blair said Campbell had made an impression in the weight room and on conditioning tests that measure attributes such as 20-yard dash time and vertical leaping ability.
"His work ethic in the summer, his numbers, certain things he did," Blair said. "All of those, you saw that he's a natural athlete."
Cignetti had gathered that from studying video clips, the speed, change of direction, toughness and flexibility Campbell put on display while rushing for 444 yards on just 51 carries across the previous two seasons at Army, qualities that the Elon coach figured would translate favorably during Campbell's switch to defense.
Meanwhile, Campbell already had felt something special developing when he visited Elon in April, likening Cignetti's blueprint for pulling the Phoenix out of its losing funk to what has worked for his former coach, Jeff Monken, in turning around Army.
"In talking with Coach Cig and Coach Trish and everybody," Campbell said, "I saw a similarity with the vision and what they thought they could do here, and I bought into it before I even got here. It played a big part in why I came here."
This article is written by Adam Smith from Times-News, Burlington, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.