By Greg Selber
July 20, 2021
The football coach is a unique animal, of that there can be no doubt.
He’s the type of guy whose focus is constant, sometimes happily obsessive, the type you could wake up in the middle of the night and he would immediately launch right in on X’s and O’s, personnel, and the like. He dreams it, he lives it, and he loves it. And he probably imagines that this is just the way it is, as in: isn’t everyone as lasered in, eternally dedicated, to their life’s passion?
To a football coach, the rest of life is something that happens “in between,” and sometimes little details pass them by because the in-between – and there is very little of it – is just an interim before the next rush of work.
Take John Campbell for instance. Here’s a man who has carved out 39 wins in four seasons as head man at Vela, his teams averaging 38 points per game and allowing just 17. He’s marshaled the SaberCats three-deep three times, taken what Michael Salinas began and ramped it up, enshrining Vela as arguably the top grid program in the Valley. He has proven to be driven, dedicated, and talented, as excellent at man management as he is at machinations on the chalkboard. And yet, the other day Campbell had to ponder just how many years he’s been in charge.
“Well … I’d have to count, let’s see …,” he said. “Yes, this’ll be fifth year here. Had to think about that for a second.”
The prototype football coach, Campbell. And during the past 18 months he’s had to deal with yet another variable, as have all the mentors in the sport.
“I would say that we’re all in the same boat,” said the former ballplayer at Rice who landed in the area to replace Salinas in 2017. “Summer has been pretty busy and that’s good, really. We’ve got the veterans, who’ve been there and done that. So our emphasis has been on the young kids, the new faces. The UIL has given us the freedom, the luxury really, to spend more time developing our guys, and so we’re in catchup mode with the young ones.”
Truth of the matter is, a number of the newest players have not been on the football field for some time due to COVID, leaving the coaching staff to work overtime – basically always the drill in this business – to figure out some loose ends.
“There’s a lot we know, a lot we don’t,” Campbell noted. “In the past, you’d get the chance to see freshman and JV games, see who is coming up, and work from there. But now we have kids from two grade levels that we just haven’t been exposed to, making spring and summer a key time for us, to get a handle on the guys coming up the ranks. In essence, I would say we are about nine months behind with them, so we need to be able to know who will fill in the blanks on the roster. Like I say, everyone is in that same boat right now. We need to find out how functional the new guys can be.”
As he turns attention to the latest season, which technically begins with fall workouts Aug. 9 but has been in his head for way longer than that, Campbell has some goals he wants to accomplish with the Sabes. His challenge, as it often is, is to fit personnel with scheme, with one eye on winning a district title and another on making a long foray into the state playoffs.
“I think that this season we will be able to run the ball well, and I am particularly interested in getting us to do that when we really need it,” said Campbell, who welcomes back tested running backs P.J. Rivera and Teddy Galvan. “We did it in the second half last year against Mission and we will need to do it in those second- and third-round games. Those ‘gotta have it’ situations, that’s when you have to be able to grind it, push people around. In big games, our Red Zone efficiency needs to improve.”
The coach thinks that there are a couple of factors that will allow Vela to be able to pound it when need be.
“We have some big bodies this year, tight-end types, and this will give us the ability to grind it out a little better,” he stressed. “When you get down the road in the playoffs, you have to be able to keep the ball, milk the clock, that sort of thing. And I think we have the personnel to make that happen.”
Another element working in the Blue and Black favor is one of the more promising offensive lines in recent memory.
“One thing you can count on down here is access to some big bodies,” Campbell said. “Being able to get physical in the playoffs, that is a real asset and something we can take advantage of. We do have some strong linemen; we’ve had seven scholarship kids on the line in four seasons, and that’s about as good as any program in South Texas, from San Antonio on down.”
This year’s blocking crew will be led by center Brandon Hinojosa, along with Kaden Truitt, Noah Almaraz, and Mark Gomez, among others.
“The big thing is, if we perform on the line, we can run the ball,” Campbell commented. “And being able to do that will take pressure off our passing game. We feel really good about the group we have up front, skill guys too, and at quarterback we have a big kid who has a strong arm, can make all the throws.”
The QB is 6-2 Chase Campbell, a physical marvel who has waited his turn and will finally get the chance to show what he can do. As the coach opined, his upside is tremendous.
“Our plan with Chase is to highlight his strengths,” he said. “While he hasn’t yet been tested in making snap decisions in pressure situations, I think that he has all the tools to be a great quarterback. Our thing with Chase is that we don’t expect him to be A.J. [Sotelo, the three-year starter who has graduated]. We want Chase to be Chase, he’s a guy who can whip the ball 60 yards, take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups downfield. And we feel really good about the type of season he’s going to have.”
On defense, expect another fast and furious Vela unit with veterans all along the depth chart. The Sabes have perhaps the Valley’s best secondary, two three-year kids at linebacker, and no fewer than six to eight different D-linemen who will all see minutes.
“I think Matt Luna could be the best corner in the Valley,” Campbell said, adding that Joshua Garcia is a known and valued commodity as a DB, while Justin Navarro – who had outstanding moments as a sophomore – might be the latest two-way threat, a la Daniel Enriquez, a Sabe great of not-so-old.
The pieces are falling into place as the program attempts to keep its winning ways going, and that includes a streak of 15 straight victories against city rivals. As he always does, Campbell is homed in on the regular season, the weekly march to the top of the standings. But he also never lets the thought of the playoffs escape his subconscious. The best coaches hold those multiple items in mind without letting one trump the other.
“When I got here, they were coming off a very disappointing loss in bi-district,” he explained. “So, the message was, get past that barrier. Then it was, get to the next round, and we did that, but we were embarrassed by Westlake, frankly. Then it became a matter of making that later round but being competitive, which we definitely did.”
Now expectations have risen along with the quality of performances, and Vela finds itself in a situation not unlike the Harlingen powerhouses of the past decade and other fine Valley programs of old such as Mission in the late 1980s, early 1990s. The Cardinals broke through with the memorable 2011 victory over SA Warren in round three; Mission’s 1990 season stands out for three playoff successes, leading to the Astrodome. Fewer than 20 RGV schools have ever won at the third round, Pioneer (2020) and Mission Vets (2018) the most recent to do so.
“We still haven’t accomplished the major goal, which is to get to that second or third round game, against quality teams from San Antonio, and win that game,” Campbell said. “We want to be that team, the one that can go into that tough, big game and maximize our strengths, execute in the clutch, and get through.”
The coach is excited to get his kids back into a normal rhythm and routine, on campus and working hard every day to achieve the goals. He said he thinks that this year’s edition – for now on paper, he adds with classic coachlike caution – has the chance to be as good, or better, than any he’s had so far.
He’s dialed in, period, down to the last detail, X and O. Even if, in the constant clatter of everyday toil that is a football coach’s labor of love, he sometimes forgets just how many moons he’s spent getting ‘er done in his adopted home.