‘There’s no place like Campbell University on game day'

Camels prep for conference-title run during full fall football slate

By DONNELL COLEY
Sports editor
Posted 8/21/21

Campbell football coach Mike Minter and senior safety Darion Slade talk welcoming back fans, preseason snubs and more ahead of the 2021 season opener.

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‘There’s no place like Campbell University on game day'

Camels prep for conference-title run during full fall football slate

Posted

BUIES CREEK — The smoky scents of barbecue escaping from the parking lot.

The blaring buzzes pumping from the pep band. The hypnotic chiming of the Kivett Bell.

Mix these ingredients with the sound of 6,000 crazed fans crammed inside Barker-Lane Stadium, and it makes for a delectable recipe the likes Campbell football hasn’t enjoyed in nearly two years.

With COVID-19 concerns suspending most Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) seasons last fall, Mike Minter agreed to have his team play a four-game autumn slate with every matchup coming on the road against an opponent from the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) ranks.

Now, the ninth-year head man can’t contain his excitement as his group sits just under three weeks away from its home opener. 

“They going to be fired up ... It couldn’t have been a better script for us to write for the 11th of September,” Minter said of the Week 2 date with Elon.

“It’s going to be fun to see the fans again because there’s no place like Campbell University on game day.”

The Fighting Camels last played a regular-season game in Buies Creek on Nov. 16, 2019.

For redshirt senior safety Darion Slade, the return to home turf can’t come soon enough.   

“The fans are everything. They keep us going and keep us pumped up,” Slade said.

“Last year, some games we didn’t have fans so that momentum had to come from us. But when you got those fans out there cheering you on, and you’re doing it for them as well as doing it for yourself and your teammates, it just makes you want to work even harder.”

Before Slade and company run through the famed “Camel Run Tunnel,” they’ll have to crack open their 2021 campaign at FBS member Liberty, a 10-1 team last season that should serve as a precursor for Campbell’s challenging 11-game schedule.

‘Earning our respect’

Opting out of the Big South Conference slate this spring, CU enjoyed little to no fanfare during last month’s preseason voting among league coaches. The Camels were picked to finish fifth in the eight-team league, while Slade was their only first-team All-Big South selection.

“Really, earning our respect,” Slade said when asked how the team will respond to the low ratings throughout the year.

“We got picked fifth in the preseason poll. A lot of that has to do with us not playing conference games last year, so nobody could really see how good we had gotten. ... We got a lot to prove.”

The hard-hitting safety led the group in tackles last fall and flirted with April’s NFL draft before ultimately deciding to pursue a final year of eligibility, due in large part to the makeup of the current Camels squad.

“This is definitely the best team I’ve been on in all my years here,” Slade said. “I knew that coming back to this team – what I know will be a playoff contender – it would shine more light on us. It was just a win-win situation.”

At the conclusion of the 0-4 short season, Slade joined a collection of seniors, that included Camel veterans Levi Wiggins and Julian Hill, in drafting a formal pact to set a standard of excellence heading into 2021.

Upon receiving the document, Minter says he was immediately emboldened for the squad’s future potential.

“I’m sitting there like a proud dad,” said Minter, a former NFL veteran who reached the Super Bowl as a member of the Carolina Panthers in 2003.

“That set the tone – all the way back in November. And I told them, ‘Man, I’ve seen this movie before.’ ... What we did with the Panthers, we went to the Super Bowl that year. So, they’re saying and doing the right stuff.”

A budding brotherhood

Slade credits the selflessness of each team member for CU’s successes the past few seasons under Minter. Excluding the all-FBS schedule last year, the Camels have finished at or above .500 for four straight times.

“We’ve been building the culture here, and the leaders have been stepping up and sticking to it,” Slade said.

“It’s more of a brotherhood with this team. It’s not a lot of select groups ... and everybody’s cool with each other – embracing each other.”

A welcomed addition to the brotherhood this season figures to be redshirt junior Justice Galloway-Velazquez, who sat out last fall due to a lower-body injury. The 6-foot-2 bruiser set a program single-season record in 2019, totaling 111 tackles, and earned a preseason honorable mention nod from the Big South in July.

“It’s huge because he’s an enforcer,” Minter said of the Fayetteville native. “The man is 265 pounds ... he’s gonna knock your head off. That’s what we were was missing. We want linebackers that make you disappear. That’s what type of guy he was and he’s gonna be this year, so it’s great to get him back.”

Meanwhile, Campbell quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams and Hill accompanied Galloway-Velazquez on the honorable mention list. Williams was named an All-American his freshman season and was tabbed the preseason pick for conference player of the year as a sophomore in 2020. He’ll look to regain his success from 2019, finding the likes of his tight end Hill (6-4, 245) and former long-distance partner Caleb Snead (6-4, 215).

‘Finish strong’ 

Minter is encouraged both by his starters and second-string players through the preseason, and says garnishing depth through recruitment and transfers will change the narrative that plagued the team in previous years.

In 2019, Campbell jumped to a 3-0 record in league play before dropping the final three conference games.

Minter used his NFL connections to enlist the help of the Philadelphia Eagles this summer, borrowing their technology-based system to track each player’s hydration intake and fatigue levels. It’s a system he feels will reverse some of the misfortunes of old down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Slade contends that taking the spring off gave him and his teammates a chance to rest their bodies and give more attention to x’s and o’s.

Ultimately, he expects the Camels to be in the conference-title mix come November.

“I would like to see us finish strong,” he said.

“I know that we can start fast, but I want to see if we can carry that momentum all the way through 11 games. So, that’s the biggest thing for us and that’s the biggest thing I want to see with this team.”

The Camels are scheduled to open the season at Liberty on Sept. 4.

Donnell Coley can be reached at dcoley@mydailyrecord.com or 910-230-2040.

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