Christmas is still more than two months away. Unless, that is, you’re Mike Minter.
As far as the Campbell football coach is concerned, Christmas arrives every time he sends his team out onto the field now that the entire class of talented players he was forced to redshirt last season is eligible and available to contribute.
“On Christmas, you get to open up all your gifts, but on Christmas Eve you kind of anticipate the deal,” said Minter, whose program was in the process of transitioning to scholarship status in 2017. “Really. Christmas Eve was all last season for us. I knew what we had on the sidelines and I couldn’t wait to open the presents.”
The former Carolina Panthers safety brought in 22 scholarship players last season in anticipation of Campbell’s move to the Big South Conference. But because it was still a member of the nonscholarship Pioneer League, none of them were allowed to play in any games while their teammates finished with a 6-5 record.
Their wait finally over, those players have joined a core of returners and a handful of FBS transfers to help the Camels get off to the best start in school history.
Campbell is 5-1 heading into Saturday’s long-awaited Big South debut at Monmouth.
“Coaches, man, you’re only good when you’ve got great players,” Minter said. “It’s definitely been fun to see these guys on the football field and because the maturation they’ve shown over the year they’ve been here. It’s also created a competition within our football team that’s really making everyone else better.”
The Camels have had four of the first six Big South Freshmen of the Week this season, with wide receiver Caleb Snead winning the award twice. Snead is averaging 20.6 yards on his 17 catches and has already scored four touchdowns.
Linebacker Justice Galloway-Velazquez has also been honored by the conference while safety Dorian Jones became the latest award winner after returning an interception for a touchdown to go along with four tackles in last Saturday’s win against Wagner.
While the Camels have upgraded their talent on both sides of the ball, the improvements have been most evident on offense, where in addition to Snead, fellow freshman Antonio Whitehead ranks third on the team with 15 catches while Wake Forest transfer Rocky Reid has bolstered a running game that has taken considerable pressure off the shoulders of star veteran quarterback Daniel Smith.
“Anytime you have a lot of weapons, it’s easy to distribute the ball, get it to your playmakers and let them go to work,” Smith, who virtually rewrote the school record book as a freshman last season, said. “We’ve know what we’ve had over the past year, we’re just glad that we finally have them ready for action.”
As important as the new additions have been for the Camels, no one has been more responsible for the team’s early-season success than Smith.
The 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore has taken advantage of his expanded receiving options to improve his completion percentage from 53 percent a year ago to 60 percent this season. And while he’s carrying the ball an average of six fewer times per game, he still leads the team in rushing while becoming the first Big South quarterback to run for 100 yards or more in three straight games.
“I call him my Magic Johnson, the point guard,” Minter said of Smith. “If Magic needed to score 40, he would. If he needed to play center, he would to win the game. That’s how Daniel is. Whatever it takes, he does it. That’s been the formula for him all season. It’s good that he can hand the ball off, throw the ball and not take as many of those hits, which is good for us.”
As much fun as these first six games have been for Campbell, Minter knows that success will be much harder to come by now that conference play is beginning.
The Big South’s preseason favorite Kennesaw State is currently ranked No. 3 nationally in the STATS FCS poll. And while Monmouth is only 3-2 so far this season, the Camels’ opponent in their inaugural league game was an FCS playoff participant a year ago.
“Anytime you get into conference play, the competition is going to get ratcheted up no matter what conference you’re in,” said Minter, whose team’s only loss this season has come to FBS opponent Coastal Carolina. “I already know it’s going to be tough for us, but the great thing is that we did get to play some big-time FCS programs to get ready for what we’re going to see in conference.”
Smith said he and his teammates are excited about the opportunity to begin a new chapter in the school’s short football history.
“It’s been a long time coming,” the sophomore quarterback said. “There’s been a lot of excitement around the program for the last couple of years about this whole Big South transition. There’s been a lot of buzz about what we want to do and what we expect to do.
“To have the kind of early season success going into conference play is really exciting, because we feel we can come in and immediately be contenders for the conference.”