AMES — When ISU redshirt freshman offensive tackle Jake Campos embarked on his first career start Sept. 6 against Kansas State, teammates reminded him to “just breathe.”
That was easier said then done when trying to thwart All-Big 12 defensive end Ryan Mueller’s powerful, twisting maneuvers that typically lead to the backfield.
But the 6-8, 291-pound Campos performed well in that 32-28 loss to the Wildcats — and his versatility has proven to be a prized asset for the Cyclones’ once again banged-up offense as it prepares to face Toledo at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium.
“He’s not a guy to hide in the back of the crowd,” ISU offensive coordinator Mark Mangino said. “He’s assertive and he’s a competitor.”
Campos’s can-do (anything, it seems) approach became an even more essential element of his game Wednesday when news broke that former starting left tackle Brock Dagel had been lost for the season after undergoing knee surgery.
Campos already had switched from right tackle to left tackle in last week’s Oklahoma State loss because Dagel couldn’t play.
That first start against Kansas State came because fellow tackle Jacob Gannon abruptly quit the team during game week.
Gannon was later welcomed back after being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and, as fate would have it, took the field last week at the starting spot Campos had filled in his absence.
So, to recap, Campos’s first start came earlier than expected — and against one of the league’s elite D-ends. And his fourth start made him re-orient his body and his steps as he set out to execute run and pass blocks against a top-25 team on the road.
That term may amount to an understatement in describing Campos, who said he’s improved “exponentially” since that initial encounter with Mueller and Co.
“Obviously that first start against K-State I was pretty rusty, pretty green,” Campos said. “Every week I’ve been getting a lot better. Being a young guy, it’s going to happen. Every week it’s going to get a lot better, so I think I’ve improved quite a bit from that first start.”
Like the youth-driven offense in general, distinct improvements in technique and understanding appear more like baby steps when it comes to results.
Campos remains very much a work in progress and the arc of his vaulted ceiling continues to excite ISU coach Paul Rhoads.
“He has been improving,” Rhoads said. “I think that’s the first piece. He’s had some games that he has not graded particularly well. Saw a nice uptick in his performance and evaluation from (last) Saturday’s game. Versatility certainly comes in the form of his athleticism. To be what he is height-wise and still be athletic enough to do the things run- and pass-wise that we need is important. As a young player to be able to go from right tackle the left tackle is also a tribute to him and the job that coach (Brandon) Blaney’s doing in bringing him along.”
It’s full speed ahead now as Dagel’s injury and surgery leaves the line even more depleted.
Campos regards a learning curve as a challenge, however — and the sharp twists and turns he’s faced simply add to the thrill of facing and eventually meeting it.
Switching from right tackle to left?
“It really wasn’t that big of a difference,” said Campos, who routinely flipped from one tackle to the other while starring at Valley. “I just hadn’t done it in a while. That first practice was a little bit rough, but I fell back into it. It was pretty natural.”
Just about everything seems to come that way for Campos, who’s just five games free and clear of his redshirt, but nonetheless an increasingly vital cog in an offense intent on finding its way after an inconsistent start to the season.
“We’re probably doing Jake a disservice, in all honesty,” Mangino said of the weight on Campos’s broad shoulders. “A redshirt freshman that’s learning a new system here. But you know what? He has a great spirit about him. There something about that guy that you could throw him just about anywhere. If I asked him to play tight end, or asked him to play running back, he probably would say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ So I like his spirit. He’s the type of kid that you just like being around him because he’s a guy thats, ‘What can I do to get better? What can I do to help the team?’”