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Signed, sealed and delivered

L-E’s Campbell, Harkness off to USC and UNC-Charlotte

Posted: December 28, 2017 11:12 a.m.
Updated: January 2, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

L-E’S WYATT CAMPBELL SIGNED his National Letter of Intent to continue his academic and football playing pursuits at the University of South Carolina while flanked by his parents, Wendy and Barry Campbell. Standing, from left, are L-E assistant football coach Marshall Minich; assistant football coach Tim Davis; head football coach Matt Campbell; Wyatt’s brothers, Blease and Elliott; L-E assistant football coach Dr. Mike Armstrong and assistant football coach Garrett Knight.

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By the middle of last spring, colleges were flooding Lugoff-Elgin rising senior Wyatt Campbell with offers to attend and play football at their respective school. At the same time, Malik Harkness was completing his junior year at Irmo High School.

Over the course of the summer, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Campbell made a verbal commitment to play football at South Carolina. By then, Harkness was in the first days of practice with Lugoff-Elgin, having transferred to the West Wateree to join his father Tim Harkness, a member of L-E head coach Matt Campbell’s staff, for Malik’s senior campaign.

Over the course of the past season, Harkness (6-4, 275), like Campbell an offensive tackle, started turning heads and drew offers from Division I programs. By early December, he pledged to UNC-Charlotte after having decided between the 49ers and North Carolina A&T.

On December 20, both hulking prospects signed their National Letters of Intent with their new schools while bidding a farewell to Lugoff-Elgin, foregoing their final five months of high school to enroll at their chosen institutions for the upcoming spring semesters.

Campbell and Harkness’ twin signings came on the first day of the NCAA’s new early signing period. While the two young men stood in front of a trio of television cameras being interviewed, Matt Campbell (no relation to Wyatt) stood in the background beaming like a proud father.

“It’s huge,” said the former USC tight end and, later, NFL offensive lineman. “It’s an accomplishment that they have both earned through their hard work, through their diligence and their commitment to getting better.

“We’re excited about it; to have two kids go to FBS (Football Bowl Series) schools … there are not a lot of schools able to do this. We’re fortunate and these kids are fortunate. They have great opportunities ahead of them at two great schools with great coaching staffs. We’re excited about their future.”

With Campbell and Harkness serving as bookends along the interior front line, the Demon offense averaged 362 yards per game in a 2017 campaign in which L-E finished with a 7-5 record and advanced to the second round of the 4A state playoffs.

Matt Campbell said both players bring book smarts with them to their chosen schools as well as impressive athletic credentials. At the same time, offensive linemen are the players most likely to be redshirted during their first season as that group, traditionally, has the biggest adjustment to make to the college game whether it be putting on or, losing weight and getting their body where it needs to be in order to withstand the punishment which comes with the territory. The game itself will also speed up immensely from what these players saw in high school.

While not knowing whether or not the USC or, Charlotte coaching staffs will wait a year before putting Campbell and Harkness on the field, their former high school head coach said he would not be surprised if either player does not see the playing field before the 2019 season.

“Physically, I think it’s the toughest adjustment,” said the third-year L-E boss of offensive linemen and the college game. “A skill kid can go in and play right away. For offensive linemen, you’re talking about the speed of the game changing with the athleticism of the defensive ends along with the strength being the big things to get used to. You have to come in, you have to be strong and you have be able to hold up.

“For these guys to early enroll, get in there and get their first spring football under their belt and dive into the system and understand the system, it will put them ahead of the rest of the freshman class coming in who will have to learn everything. They’re going to be ahead of the curve so, who knows what will happen.”

Given their frames, Matt Campbell said he expects both players to remain at tackle rather than being moved along the interior or, even to the defensive side of the football in college.

“I see them both staying at tackle because they’re both athletic and have long frames with good feet and they both move very well,” he said.

“The speed of the game, no doubt, will be the biggest adjustment that they both of them will have to make. In high school, over the course of a year, you may see one, maybe two, really solid defensive ends. Now, they’re going to be seeing guys who are 250 (pounds) or heavier who can really run. They are going to see the kind of speed that they’re used to seeing from receivers.”

 

Campbell: Young and ready

 

For Wyatt Campbell, the road to South Carolina began in earnest when he committed to Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks on June 15, 2017. It ended an extensive series of visits for the younger brother of 2017 L-E graduate Elliott Campbell, an offensive lineman who redshirted at Wofford this past season after having signed with the Terriers last February.

The recruitment of Wyatt Campbell proved even more intense than that of his older brother. Wyatt pulled the trigger on his school of choice much earlier than did Elliott, who waited out the process until the final few days before the February signing period. 

Wyatt Campbell admitted that the time between his announcement on Twitter last summer and his signing ceremony inside L-E’s Wellness Center seemed much longer than the six months and five days than even he could have probably imagined.

“I’ve really just been hanging out and getting my leg right, of course,” he said alluding to an injury sustained to his left knee in a preseason scrimmage with Blythewood which worsened over the course of the season to the extent that he would miss the Demons’ two playoff games as well as the Shrine Bowl game on Dec. 16 due to having surgery performed to repair the knee’s torn meniscus.

“I got the chance to bond with some of the players, coaches and some of the other recruits from South Carolina so, it’s been pretty good.”

Campbell started his senior year at L-E at 16 years of age. He should have been a junior in 2017 but things accelerated and here he is. Now, however, as possibly USC’s youngest signee, things are expected to slow down for Campbell, especially given that he is just a few weeks into his recovery.

Campbell said he expects to be redshirted for USC’s 2018 season. Still, getting on campus early and starting up his college career before some high school seniors have even made their decision on a school is not a bad thing.

 “It’s a big deal. I’m going to go there a semester early and, hopefully, get my knee right over the next couple weeks to get back to 100 percent. It’s going to be a great experience,” he said.

“It will help me a lot because I’m already only supposed to be a junior in high school and I’m going into college a semester early. It will give me an extra year and a half to grow and develop as a player.”

On the likelihood of not playing next fall, Campbell took a philosophical view. “It’s going to be hard,” he admitted, “but it will all be worth it in the end.”

Once on the playing field, Campbell will experience a different animal, so to speak, in the players he will line beside on the offensive line as well as the defensive ends and outside linebackers he will be staring down each Saturday.

Matt Campbell said there will be a healthy uptick in the level of talent which Wyatt Campbell will see and experience at USC. “Obviously, with Wyatt going to play in the SEC, he’s going to be seeing the upper echelon; your top 150 players,” he said.

“It’s a whole other level of football; the game is faster,” Wyatt Campbell said. “I’ve always been the biggest, strongest or, whatever, guy on the team but in college, it doesn’t work that way. Everybody is as strong or, stronger. It’s all about technique and adjusting to the speed of the game.”

In the same breath, Matt Campbell said Wyatt Campbell, who has a nasty streak on the field and a pleasant, easy-going demeanor away from the gridiron, has all the tools necessary to be a success in the college game.

“To be as big and long as he is, Wyatt is so athletic. His ceiling is really high,” the Demon head coach said of the four-year letterwinner who was a three-year starter for Matt Campbell. “He has to develop in the strength category and they know that. (USC strength and conditioning) Coach (Jeff) Dillman is going to get a hold of him and tear him down and build him back up. Athletically and skill-wise, though, Wyatt has everything it takes to play at that level.”

Ever since he committed to USC, Wyatt Campbell has been teased and kidded by Matt Campbell and L-E offensive line/strength and conditioning coach Mike Armstrong, who also played along the offensive line at USC, about how different things are going to be, especially in the weight room, in Columbia. For the past half year, Wyatt Campbell has smiled when told by his two coaches that they are going to be in the weight room on the first day he arrives for workouts. He does acknowledge that playing and preparing to play college football will be a game-changer for him as it is for all incoming freshmen players.

“They’ve been giving me a hard time about it and, it will be a challenge,” he said of the words from Campbell and Armstrong while breaking into a wide smile which later turned into a laugh. “They’ve already told me that they’re going to try to kill us as soon as we get in there.

“It’s going to be exciting but I’m ready. Or, I think I’m ready.”

 

Harkness: There’s no place like home

 

Sometimes, going to a school in a city with a population which is inching toward the one million mark is a reason for a high school senior to give pause about making that area their collegiate home.

There are no such issues with Malik Harkness who was born in the Charlotte and lived in the Queen City while his father was the head football coach at Johnson C. Smith University from 1999 through 2004. Giving a “why worry” smile, Malik Harkness embraces going back to an area which he once called home.

“I’ve always loved Charlotte. Every time I went there, I’ve loved it,” he said. “I was actually born there and moved there when I was little so it’s almost like a homecoming for me. I just love Charlotte.”

The 49ers were the first school to offer Harkness a scholarship. The news was delivered by running backs coach Keith Henry, the lead recruiter in this area for head coach Brad Lambert’s program. “Coach (Keith) Henry did a great job of recruiting me and making me feel welcome and, making me feel wanted, for the most part,” Harkness said.

Henry and Matt Campbell were not the only people who hard Harkness’ ear throughout the process. The person who was there guiding his son was Tim Harkness. In addition to being the former head coach at Johnson C. Smith University, the elder Harkness was an assistant coach at Illinois, Baylor and, in 1991, was the wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

If Malik Harkness ever had a question as to what to expect and how to handle his affairs when it came to sifting through college offers, all he had to was ask when he got back home from school that day or, in this case, during school hours.

“My dad helped me a lot … it was the biggest blessing,” Harkness said of the guidance and understanding provided by his father who had to miss the signing ceremony to attend the funeral of a close friend.

“He’s been through the recruiting process when he was a coach so, he gave me all the advice and told me all the stuff that I should and shouldn’t do. My dad is a blessing and I appreciate everything he did for me. I could never appreciate him enough.”

Harkness will join a 49ers program which is a member of Conference USA. The school, with an enrollment of some 27,000 students, announced it would start a football program in 2011. Two years later, UNCC played its first season in the Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA) ranks. In 2015, it made the leap to Football Bowl Series (Division I) and into C-USA play.

The 49ers are coming off their worst season in the program’s five-year history after posting a 1-11 mark in 2017. Harkness sees that as a challenge and hopes to be on the ground floor of a renaissance.

“It’s up and coming and that’s part of what I’ve been around all my life,” he said. “I was at Irmo first and then, here. To have the year that we had here this past season … I’d like to have that moment, again, in Charlotte and help them to get to that point.”

In order to help the 49ers become a winning program, Harkness will have to start at the bottom of the heap. He has been told that he will be redshirted next season, which he is fine with doing. In fact, he said, not having to worry about being on the field each Saturday will help him get better adjusted to the speed of the college game and his new surroundings. The time will also aid him in his development as he seeks to become a key contributor over the course of his career.

“It’s going to hurt a little but I know that it’s for a good cause for the four years after that. I’ll be ready,” he said of sitting out a year and the trappings which come with being a college freshman.

“You’re at the bottom of the totem pole again so, you have to work all the way back up. As a freshman, you have to earn the respect of all the players. That’s going to be a big adjustment.”

One thing which Harkness has started to get mentally prepared for is the commitment to the weight room and to the 49ers’ offseason program. While he had a taste of what to expect at Irmo and his one season at L-E, things will intensify once he gets to Charlotte.

“Malik has to continue to develop in the weight room,” Matt Campbell said. “He is very fundamentally sound with great flexibility. He is very smart and he does a lot of good things with his feet. He does not get himself out of position very often. He’s a very coachable kid who is going to be a great addition to their team.”

If there is regret which Campbell has when it comes to Malik Harkness, it is that the Demon coaching staff had just one season to work with him. In talking with the young man who is leaving the school after some four months as a student, you get the feeling he wished he would have made the move earlier.

 “I loved it. It’s like family here,” he said of his time at L-E. “I’m really glad that I transferred here. It was the best move for me. This year was great.”

 

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