The gradual, still-ongoing, climb out of a two-year pandemic with flashes of normalcy.
Restoring in bits and pieces the vision of Mike Minter, as well as that of his assistant coaches and leaders at Campbell University.
Earlier this month, adding to an already astounding signing haul for any Football Championship Subdivision program, let alone one in its infancy of actually handing out athletics scholarships, the Camels’ program of Minter, a former University of Nebraska All-American and longtime Carolina Panthers star, began finalizing a 2022 signing class that is viewed as foundational for its impact before ever donning a Campbell uniform.
“It has been pretty surreal, this whole process, starting way back in January 2021,” Minter tells FootballScoop. “It’s been fun. It’s been a blueprint that I can take for the rest of my career.”
This class carries with it the potential that can transform career arcs, for those of a head coach but more importantly a program on the field.
In nailing down what according to both Rivals and 247Sports is the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class at the FCS level, the Camels are welcoming in 11 signees with three- or four-star designations, per the major services.
Another ranking has Campbell with three of the top 11 FCS signees, four of the top 26 and five of the division’s top 37.
“I asked Coach Mint, ‘What do you want, what are the goals and vision?’,” says Braxton Harris, the Camels’ linebackers coach and first-year recruiting coordinator. “He said, ‘I want to be the best in the nation.’ That was the first thing out of his mouth. It was pretty strong marcher orders from Day 1, right out the gate.”
Adds Patrick Miller, the program’s just-promoted safeties coach who previously helped Louisiana-Monroe two years ago sign the Sun Belt Conference’s top recruiting class, “It’s probably one of the most important things that I talk about when I recruit these kids. They’re the future. What they can do is kind of in their own hands. They’re going to build the class, take the program to the next step. We’re here giving them an opportunity with that hope and dream.
“But the same vision of hope and what a class can do for our program, winning the conference, going to FCS playoffs, guys that early-enrolled are selling that vision already to future recruits. It’s hope, yes, but it’s more of a goal they all have set for themselves.”
It’s one of college football’s sweeping changes – the onset of the NCAA Transfer Portal – to which Minter traces the foundational inspiration in this class to go recruit players with Power 5 offers the likes of … Arkansas, Michigan, Miami and myriad others.
“I think the first thing was, the Transfer Portal,” says Minter, singling out the fearlessness of Harris and the relentlessness of Miller. “You look at that and say and this is going to really affect college football. When I saw Alabama getting into the Portal, getting guys, I said if Alabama is doing it, this is about to turn into free agency for real. I said high school kids aren’t going to have as many homes, and we’re going to be very aggressive going after three-, four-, five-stars.
“We went after kids two years ago where people would say you don’t have a shot at them. Those kids are looking to be recruited, and wanted opportunity, and had been told and promised a lotta things. My biggest deal is be honest and authentic.”
Campbell’s 18-man signing class features a nucleus from the Tar Heel State and another four from Florida; it also has several players from Virginia.
The Camels’ coaching staff traces the willingness especially of the prospects from Florida and Virginia to travel last summer to Campbell’s campus, which sits 29 miles due south of Raleigh, as timeline for a dream starting to transform into reality.
Coaches recall hosting between 15 and 20 prospects, not for camps, but for individual and small-group meetings. Workouts with potential future position coaches. Tours of campus. Casual meals scratching below the surface of any streamlined recruiting pitch.
Kirk Peterson, a prep head coach in Virginia with deep ties both coaching and training athletes in the Commonwealth, recalls seeing an immediate difference in dealing with Minter, Harris, Miller & Co.
“When you take six or seven recruits from all over the state of Virginia to campus, getting face time with the head coach, it says a lot about the program’s systemic effect and their whole approach,” Peterson says. “We worked out 1-on-1 with position coaches, had parents there, really it was a red carpet event. It just kept snowballing, their commitment to the recruiting process is kind of unseen in this day. But they let them come down and work out, which led to offers which eventually led to commitments.
“Kids feel love from coaches that is genuine. It says so much about the program at Campbell and the coaches, Coach Minter and those that are under Coach Minter.”
Highlights of the Camels’ class include former four-star prospects Myles Rowser, a Detroit, Michigan-area, product with a long commitment to Arkansas prior to flipping this month to Campbell, as well as former four-star Edric Weldon of Miami’s South Broward High School.
Paul Hutson III, a Virginia native playing out his prep career at national powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, is another cornerstone element to the class.
One of the biggest foundational commitments – both in stature and timing – remains Desaun Williams, a 6-foot-4, 315-pounder from Bethel, N.C., coming to the Camels’ program by way of Life Christian Academy in Virginia.
“Desaun actually grew up in Raleigh, less than 30 minutes from here, and he had that family connection,” Miller says. “He was the first big commitment.
“Once he said yes, that’s when really things started to roll. Akim Sledge, NaQuari Rodgers jumped on board; similar to what happened at Monroe, once you get that wave going, especially with those Virginia coaches, they like to support because those guys really care about their kids and seeing them get the best opportunities. A big first part of our class was a lot of Virginia-based kids. And once u get an IMG kid, it’s about perception in Florida.”
All of this, mind you, four years after Minter’s ability to convince the school to offer football scholarships, a vision he credits administration for sharing from the top down.
“That first year, No. 1 of the four years we’ve given scholarships, was pretty tough,” Minter says. “We decided to do it, and it’s November, December, we’re assembling that first class. So, really, we’ve been doing it for three years.
“But one, it’s where I come from. Everywhere I’ve been it’s always been big-time football, competing for championships. That’s all I know. Organizations that strive to be the best. I’ve never been on a team that didn’t win some kind of championship, and I’d been coaching in high school and little league and won championships. I don’t know anything else. I know that’s what we want to do here.”
Minter sees a coaching staff, and evidence in this recruiting class, of like-minded people around him.
“Braxton, it was his first year, he doesn’t know me at all, and I say go get the No. 1 class and make it happen,” Minter recalls. “When I looked in his eyes, he didn’t blink.
“He said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ Coaches went out and did that.”
Now, perhaps, a bit more light can shine on Campbell Camels football – even if Minter knows most headlines still focus on the singular talent atop Deion Sanders’ Jackson State program.
“I’m a competitor, too; we played in the same league, he’s a DB and I’m a DB,” Minter says of the parallels to Sanders. “Competitive nature is always there. He wants to be the best, he wants to dominate FCS HBCU football. I want to do the same thing. The only way you do that is to get dominant players, he knows that. I know that. With that, you’re going to become two people in same space who naturally rise to the top and be compared. I think that’s just the nature of who he is. As a man and a coach. That’s the fun part. You do have fellow NFL alum that’s coaching at the same level, you get to compete with and have fun with that.
“It’s one thing for us, and it’s holding up that trophy in Frisco, Texas (in the FCS Championship). That’s always been my goal when I got here. My first goal was to be a scholarship program. You can never hold up that trophy without scholarships. The next goal was to build a No. 1 recruiting class, now you do that, and now it’s time to go win some football games.”
It’s the next step in the process, one both years long and just now getting started.