|Campitelli (75) stepped into a bigger leadership role on offense, and recently added more inspiration for himself and the Crusaders.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
How does a team lose the National Defensive Player of the Year, the Stagg Bowl Most Valuable Player, and a Gagliardi Trophy semifinalist, then somehow come back even better the following year?
One visit to a Mary Hardin-Baylor practice is all it takes to see how the Crusaders reloaded following the program’s first national championship in 2016.
“You would think it was two different teams playing against each other if you came to our practice, with all the talking and competing,” said senior defensive tackle Haston Adams. “Day in and day out, you have to prove you belong here. It rubs off on the young kids even if they’re not getting all the reps.”
Adams is now one of the unquestioned leaders of the defense, after allowing seniors like Teidrick Smith, Baylor Mullins, and Matt Cody to provide that leadership last season. While the Cru broke in a new group of linebackers, returning starters like defensive back Kris Brown and defensive linemen Adams, Brazos Fuller, and Ajay Fanene took on bigger roles.
“I’ve had to become a little more vocal than normal. I usually don’t talk much,” said Adams. “It’s a communication thing. Early in the season, we started slow as a defense. As the season wore on, we started communicating more and building more trust with the guys.”
While Smith is pursuing his professional career in the Canadian Football League, Mullins and Cody remained in Belton and joined the Crusaders coaching staff. Their football knowledge and championship pedigree has been a valuable addition to the program.
“They are just priceless and obviously we are very proud that they are part of this program and we're really excited that they all want to go into coaching and they're going to be outstanding coaches,” said head coach Pete Fredenburg. “They have really helped a lot and they've done a great deal, not only with just helping our football team but just developing the morale and the bond that has to exist for a team to develop the chemistry it needs to have a championship.”
On the other side of the ball, receivers T.J. Josey and Bryce Wilkerson and left tackle Corbin Campitelli have taken on the leadership role vacated by 2016 Stagg Bowl MVP Blake Jackson.
“Haston was a guy that fell into the shadows of Teidrick Smith last year and now he's developed the idea that he is the leader of the defensive line,” said Fredenburg. “I think Corbin on the offensive side has just taken the role of being the guy who everybody looks to for leadership, and that’s especially true with the young freshman quarterback.”
Like Adams, Campitelli is more naturally quiet. But both have become more vocal while pushing each other and their teammates in practices.
“Early in the season, it was kind of hard to figure out. Usually as an offense, you want the quarterback to have that leadership role because he touches the ball and sees everything,” said Campitelli. “We had a lot of different moving pieces and I understood that I had to step up and lead the unit. It was really a group effort helping the new quarterbacks adjust.”
Preparing for playoff opponents like Linfield, St. Thomas, Brockport, and now Mount Union can be daunting. But few teams are as prepared for any challenge an opponent can present them. That all goes back to the way the Crusaders practice.
“Something I think is terribly important is that you maintain that competitive level through your practices. And so, we have quite a bit of competition that we go against,” said Fredenburg. “It becomes very competitive, but we as coaches try to make sure that we don't let it get out of hand, but we think that it helps each side of the ball get better.”
Mount Union’s defensive front wreaks havoc on opposing offenses, but not at the same level as the Cru’s. Mary Hardin-Baylor is allowing just seven points per game this season. That’s even better than the 2015 Mount Union defense that entered the Stagg Bowl allowing just 7.5 points per game, after allowing a total of 34 points in the regular season.
“Pete and his staff do a great job with those men. As a defensive guy, I can appreciate good defense,” said Mount Union head coach Vince Kehres. “They play great defense. I think that this is going to be the best defensive line we’ve played all year. There’s not a lot of obvious weaknesses on that defense.”
|Despite graduating key starters, the Cru's defense led by Adams (96) and Fuller (99) is even more suffocating this year.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
Last year’s Cru defense, which held Mount Union to 12 points in the semifinals and UW-Oshkosh to just seven points in the title game, allowed 13.9 points per game. This year’s group, with linebacker Tevin Jones and safety Jalen Martin stepping up into bigger roles, has gotten even better.
“It’s insane. It doesn’t get any better than those four every year,” said Campitelli of his teammates on the defensive line. “It’s unbelievable how good they are. You get in games, and you don’t see anything like that in the nation.”
The competition is fierce, but it is also beneficial. If Fanene gets a step to the inside, he’ll explain to Campitelli what he saw that allowed him to beat the tackle off the ball.
“There’s no days off. You don’t get to go to practice and just stand in front of somebody,” said Campitelli. “You’ve got to bring it and get better every day. We make each other better.”
Similarly, the defense feels prepared for D’Angelo Fulford’s escapability after chasing Jackson in practices the past few years, then chasing Josey, Kyle Jones, and Carl Robinson III throughout this season. At the end of every practice, when the defense is most tired, they will run a scramble drill until their coaches blow the whistle.
“We’ve got a quarterback back there who likes to run around a lot. That gets us ready for quarterbacks who like to move around,” said Adams. “Chasing guys like [receiver/returner] Bryce [Wilkerson] around gets us ready for Saturdays.”
Some teams like to put the past behind them and decline talk of a repeat. That was originally what the Cru planned on doing this season. But with key players back on both sides of the ball, plus two of last year’s leaders on the sidelines coaching, they accepted that the goal this year is to defend their 2016 title.
“First I thought we were trying to make this season our own. Then we came together as a team and realized last season would play a part,” said Campitelli. “Our goal is to repeat. We’ve been using those experiences to help us this year.”
There’s one more motivating factor for these seniors, and she arrived in the early hours of December 6. In her brief lifetime, Landry Grace Campitelli has yet to see a Crusaders national championship. Corbin’s daughter was born in Fort Worth around 2:00 a.m. on a Wednesday. Fredenburg let his starting left tackle leave practice on Tuesday so he could be there for the birth. Campitelli returned to campus to take a final exam the afternoon of his daughter’s birthday, then attended football practice in preparation for the semifinal game against Brockport.
Adams has already declared himself Landry’s uncle. The players and coaching staff have supported Campitelli, who has had to settle for several hours of FaceTiming while the Cru completes its run to Salem. Between the birth of his daughter and clinching a return to the Stagg Bowl, Campitelli is enjoying a pretty special December.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It was definitely emotional. I couldn’t have asked for a better week. It’s a feeling I can’t explain. The closest thing I could think of was winning the national championship last year,” he said. “I wish I could take her with us [to Salem]. After we win, I’m going to go home and celebrate with her.”