Aug 21, 2013
As the Wildcats wrapped up Training Camp in Kenosha and returned to Evanston, NUSports.com's Skip Myslenski talked to the Wildcats' safety combination of junior Ibraheim Campbell and sophomore Traveon Henry as they prepare for the 2013 season.
The one, the junior Ibraheim Campbell, was a radiant talent back home in Philadelphia. He was an all-state running back and an all-city defensive back his senior senior season at Chestnut Hill Academy and, as the ‘Cats recruited him, they were looking at him to play either side of the ball. But then, bluntly, Campbell told them, “I want to play DB.”
He felt that would give him the best chance to someday play on Sundays. That was one reason for his declaration. But also, the ‘Cat safety recently explained, “I like the defensive mentality, the pride you have to have to not let someone run past you. And the camaraderie of the defense, I think it’s a little bit different than the offense. There’s not as much glory to it, but guys are putting in as much work.”
The other, the sophomore Traveon Henry, was the son of Jamaicans who had met in Fort Lauderdale after separately resettling there. His dad Stafford had played cricket and run the sprints in that country that breeds great sprinters. But now, in their new home, his son would get enamored by another sport after seeing a movie called Little Giants. “It’s based in Urbania, Ohio. A bunch of little kids playing Pop Warner football,” Henry recently recalled. “I saw they got to put on the pads, and they looked like they were having fun doing what they were doing. So I said, ‘Hey, I might have to go put on some pads and have some fun too.’ So it was really me just wanting to put on the pads.”
He, like Campbell, would star as both a running back and a defensive back as a high school senior, but with him there was never a doubt about where he would play in college. “The fact that I got to play in space and I got to hit. I love being the aggressor,” said Henry, explaining the attraction of the position he now plays alongside Campbell. “I feel I take out a lot of aggression, a lot of anger when I’m out there hitting. That’s why I truly like safety.”
The one, Campbell, wore a red shirt his true freshman season, but has started every game in the last two. The other, Henry, started no games as a true freshman last fall, but appeared in 12 of the 13 the ‘Cats played. Now they are paired together, together manning a position that is, concurrently, both starkly simple and astoundingly complex.
The simple part of their job is simply explained. They are, literally, the very last line of the ‘Cat defense and so, if they are called upon to do their job and fail, the consequences are dire for their team. “That makes us feel we can’t let up,” Campbell says when asked about that reality. “We know we always have to be clicking, always have to be sharp. Ultimately, we have a huge impact on the outcome of the game. That’s something we take pride in, something we realize.”
“You have to take it on with the right attitude,” Henry says of that same reality. “I take it on knowing it’s something I can do. And I’m glad the people in front of me trust me back there, trust me to be able to cover up for them if they make a mistake.”
But there is far more to their job than just that and this is why Pat Fitzgerald, when asked about the safety position, begins by saying, “You’ve got to be pretty special, right?”
He pauses and then, a heartbeat later, explains. “You’ve got to be a guy that can get us lined up and be the quarterback of the defense,” he now says. “You’ve got to be able to cover slot receivers man-to-man, and you’ve got to be able to get down in the box and be physical when the ball pops through the first-and-second layers. So not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination.”
“I would argue I’m the quarterback of the defense,” Campbell picks up. “Some linebackers would argue with that. But I’ve got to make sure I know what’s going on in the back end because if were not clicking, it’s six on the board. We’ve experienced that in the past, and that’s made me really hone in.”
“And your calls have to be deliberate and they have to be correct and on time,” Henry later concludes. “Because once your message goes to the linebackers, they relay the next message down to the defensive line. So if you’re not on your duty, if you’re not doing it right, that affects everybody. And that’s only the mental part. When it comes to the physical, I’m supposed to be a downhill guy but I’m also supposed to be able to cover. So you’ve got to be a pretty decent athlete.”
Both, clearly, were talented athletes coming out of high school. But, for a while, there was a question about Henry’s ultimate destination. “Is he going to eat his way out of the third level to the second level?” says Fitzgerald, explicating that question.
Henry laughs when he hears that line, laughs appreciatively, and then he says, “I’m one who’s on a see-food diet. I see food and I eat it. I’ve been pretty good at camp, eating my salads and staying with that. But sweets just attract me. I gained 20 pounds last summer when I first got up here (going from 200 to 220). Now I’m down to 212 and I’m feeling much fast, much quicker. Last year you could see I had a gut. That’s something I really worked on. That’s one of the reasons I always practice with my shirt up. I always tell ‘em (his teammates), ‘One day you’re going to see abs under this shirt.’ That’s one thing that motivates me.”
Campbell, in turn, needed no such motivation, a fact made clear when we ask Henry for a scouting report on his playmate. “If there was a Renaissance Man of football at safety, I’d say he’s that type of guy,” he reports here. “I’m sure he’s feared as a safety. Everyone knows he can hit. He has great hands, he has a great football sense, he’s just a great football player as a whole, to be honest with you. I’m learning a lot of things from him that are taking me to the next level.
“That starts pretty much in the film room. He’s a guy who takes pride in what he is doing and he makes every decision based on how it’s going to affect him out here (on the field). That’s one thing I learned living with him this summer. His diet. He has a smoothie maker. That’s all he eats. Fresh fruit. He’ll spend an hour cutting up peaches, cutting up pineapples just to make sure his body’s right. He treats it as a temple. I respect that.”
Here, finally, is how much respect safeties can inspire. On an NFL website listing the 10 toughest hombres to ever play in the league, five of the names toiled at that position. (Former Raider Jack Tatum was one, former 49er Ronnie Lott was another and a third was the little remembered Dick “Night Train” Lane, who during the ‘50s and ‘60s perfected the clothesline tackle that was then still legal.) “I definitely see how safeties can be labeled that,” Campbell will say when told all that. “You have to be hitters as well as playmakers, coverage guys. You have to be an all-around player.”
Does he consider himself a tough guy?
“I’ll leave that to other people to determine. I’ll just keep playing,” he demurs.
“I like that. I like that,” Henry says minutes later when he hears those facts. “A lot of people don’t realize that. They just think we cover out there.”
And does he consider himself a tough guy?
“Definitely. Definitely,” Traveon Henry says, smiling once more. “Like I said, one of the biggest things that drew me to safety was being the aggressor. Being able to hit somebody, that’s one of the greatest feelings on the field.”
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