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Ben Smith

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Saint Francis
Antoin Campbell carried the ball a team record 240 times for Saint Francis last season and broke the school single-season record with 1,204 rushing yards. The junior also rushed for more than 100 yards in six games.

‘Pretty neat kid’ carries Cougars

Saint Francis
Offensive coordinator Patrick Donley expects Antoin Campbell to catch more passes this year.

So here he comes now, out of the shadow and into the midday sun of let-’em-up-easy August: Antoin Campbell, following the natural progression of things.

He is no longer 18 years old, landing in a strange place 140 miles from home. He is no longer Someone Who Might Help Us A Little This Year, nor even Someone To Keep An Eye On.

No, sir. Every eye is already on him.

That was sealed a year ago, when Campbell, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound running back out of Springboro, Ohio, carried the football more times for more yards than any running back ever at Saint Francis. His 240 carries broke the school single-season record. So did his 1,204 yards. Six times he cracked the century mark in a season highlighted by his 27-carry, 141-yard day against No. 1 Marian, and the 49 carries and 238 yards he piled up in playoff wins over Lindenwood and Baker.

Now he returns as a Beyond Sports Network preseason NAIA All-American, and no kid anymore. He’s 22 years old. Although a junior in eligibility, he could graduate in May. And he’s the centerpiece of a potentially devastating offense in ways that extend far beyond the field.

“He’s a mature young man,” Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley says. “He’s really stepped up and takes ownership in this team. (This week) we have our community service Champions of Character, and he’s one of the six players that are going to be taking the lead in that as we go out to different organizations.

“Pretty neat kid. Good football player.”

And if one has become inseparable from the other these days, it all goes back to that natural progression. When it all goes right, a freshman becomes a name becomes a leader.

“It is a little different,” says Campbell, whose poise is evident from the moment he opens his mouth. “Coming here as a freshman, I was one of those guys trying to look up to the older guys. Now I am one of those older guys, so it’s kind of weird.

“But I kind of like it at the same time.”

And so, yes, he’ll step into that role. He’ll try to lead by example. He will, he says, try to be “a little bit more vocal,” even as he admits that’s something new for him.

And on the field?

“I feel like it’s just the same thing,” he says. “Just come out here and play as hard as I can. Just do what I can for the team. I don’t feel like my role’s changed all that much. Just more of a target I guess.”

In more ways than one. Campbell was almost purely a running back last season, catching just nine passes for 46 yards.

But with Patrick Donley taking over as offensive coordinator this fall, that’s likely to change.

“Oh, we’re going to throw to him more,” Kevin Donley says. “We found out he’s a pretty good receiver. With some of the things we’re doing offensively, we’re going to get five people out more instead of trying to keep one in to protect.”

Not that he won’t be getting his carries, of course.

“He’s got great vision and the ability to run a lot of reads,” Kevin Donley says. “And he’s getting bigger and stronger as time goes on. And he’s got good speed. He’s deceiving because he’s kind of a long strider.”

Longer now than ever, it seems. And in many more ways than one.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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