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Charles Campbell and the art of a kicker’s mind

During most practices, IU kicker Charles Campbell doesn’t know when, or if, he’s going to be called onto the field. It’s in an effort to create a game-like atmosphere, where Campbell has to be ready on the sideline at all moments of, for example, a 20-minute period.

This is the situation that Campbell found himself in on Thursday, at the end of a more than two-hour practice. The offense and defense were going at it, but Campbell, mostly alone, was on the strip of turf in between the two practice fields, blasting balls into a net.

Being a kicker can be lonely. Despite not being on the field for most of the game, the outcome is often in their hands. They’re hailed if they do their job. They’re heavily criticized if they don’t.

Kicker Charles Campbell of the Indiana Hoosiers kicks during the game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Indiana Hoosiers on Nov. 7, 2020 at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. Photo By Missy Minear/Indiana Athletics

Campbell knows this as well as anybody else, as he enters his redshirt junior season as a key piece to IU’s special teams unit. Part of the job is constantly balancing on a mental tightrope. In moments like these, waiting on the sideline during Thursday’s practice, not knowing when he’ll be called, it’s just him and his thoughts. He visualizes himself making kicks on the field. He thinks about the wind direction and what hash he may be lining up on. He tries to make himself feel anxious. 

“You can hit pretty much every kick that you’re put out there to hit,” Campbell said. “The only thing that changes, it’s not you physically, it’s your mind.”

On one of the last snaps of practice, the field goal unit is called onto the field. Campbell makes his way onto the field and lines up a 35-plus yard kick. After the snap and hold, Campbell swings his leg, sending the ball end-over-end. The distance is there, but not the accuracy. It misses to the right.

Later, after practice, reflecting on the kick, the second team All-Big Ten kicker sounded like someone with perspective, someone who understands the mental aspect of kicking.

“It’s just a little human error,” Campbell said in a syrupy southern accent. “…No big deal.”

Maybe this is a telling example of how Campbell has evolved since he arrived in Bloomington four years ago. Even if he misses a kick like on Thursday, he has trust in himself to make the next one while under pressure. He enjoys working on his mindset, which is often the key to becoming a great kicker.

“It’s more being confident in yourself than comfortable,” Campbell said. “It’s more of going out there and knowing you can kick the kick because you’ve kicked the kick so many times.”

As a freshman at IU, Campbell had all of the physical makings of a great kicker. He was a finalist for 2017 Tennessee Mr. Football (kicker) and was invited to the 2018 U.S. Army All-American bowl. But in his first season, he redshirted after being beaten out for the starting spot by Logan Justus. The following year, Justus was again ahead of Campbell on the depth chart.

“The first year I came in, I was a little hesitant about college football,” Campbell said. “…I really feel like it was my mental more than my physical.”

Last season, after Justus graduated, Campbell finally got his opportunity, and took advantage of it. He led the Big Ten in field goal percentage, making 10 of 11 kicks while also knocking in all 25 of his extra-point attempts. In the bowl game against Ole Miss, he became the second Hoosier in program history to make two 50-plus yarders. He was a second team All-Big Ten selection as a result.

The difference between last season and earlier in his career?

“Just trusting yourself,” Campbell said.

He also added: “I’ve really been focusing on having consistent thoughts because I believe that consistent thoughts create consistent actions.”

Beyond the mental side, Campbell has also been concentrating on the physical aspects of kicking this offseason. In order to develop his strength, he treats workouts as if he were a position player. He lifts heavy. He takes team runs, explosive lifts and jumping drills seriously.

“I kind of view myself as lifting like a running back because I’m trying to be so explosive in a short amount of time,” Campbell said.

There are heightened expectations for Campbell this season, who has goals of playing at the professional level. He may also take on another obligation on special teams as Indiana’s kickoff man this season. Plus, he’s working with a new holder, Chase Wyatt, which adds another varying element to repeating his production from last season and striving to be a first team All-Big Ten performer.

“He’s a confident kid, but he’s very level-headed. He’s not arrogant.” IU special teams coordinator Kasey Teegardin said of Campbell. “He goes about his business and does his job. But for him, it’s just a constant reminder that this is a new season.”

For all the thinking that Campbell does on the sideline, his strategy is strikingly different when he gets onto the field. He doesn’t think about getting his hip through the ball or kicking it vertically. His mind, as he puts it, goes “blank.”

“I’m just trying to simple it up,” Campbell said. “And I think the most simple thing that you can do is not think. Just going out there and letting it rip.”

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