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Sept. 14, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - He's "Camp" to his teammates but maybe he should be called "The Slot Machine."
That suggestion combines Michael Campanaro's position - slot receiver - with his uncanny ability to catch pass after pass. In other words, he almost always pays off.
It's likely that defensive coordinators around the ACC have a few less-flattering names for him, too. The Wake Forest junior receiver is receiving attention and accolades just two games into the young season. He caught 13 passes for 164 yards, both career highs, in the Deacons' 28-27 win over North Carolina last weekend.
In two games Campanaro has 22 catches, half of Wake's 44 for the season. They have accounted for 260 of the team's 557 receiving yards.
Now it's Florida State's turn to figure out how to stop him. The Seminoles will host Wake at noon this Saturday in an early ACC Atlantic Division matchup.
"Great instincts," summed up FSU coach Jimbo Fisher. "I think he has tremendous quickness and ball skills, uses his hands very well and obviously (is) very tough because he goes across the middle.
"What I see is a guy who understands football, knows how to sit in holes and how to set (defenders) up on routes, has a really good burst in his routes, just a heck of a football player. He has been a huge problem for the teams he's played and will be for us, also."
The slot receiver usually lines up split wide in the backfield but inside of another receiver who is on the line of scrimmage. Whereas wide-outs generally look for open green spaces of deeper routes, the slot receiver cuts across the middle on shorter ones. He's searching for creases, cracks, seams, windows, holes - whatever you want to call the spaces in the defense that Campanaro always seems to find.
"Playing over the middle there's a lot of 'feel' routes," Campanaro said. "I just have to be in the right position for Tanner (Price) to find me in between those linemen.
"It's fun to be running across the middle. Sometimes it's a little nerve-wracking but it comes with the position; you have to go across the middle fearless. You might as well catch the ball because you know you're going to get hit."
Campanaro has developed a special rapport with his quarterback.
"I think we're just on the same page," Price said. "He sees what I'm seeing, what the defense is showing us. He knows where the holes are in defenses and he does a great job of sitting down and getting open."
That's a result of doing a lot of work together in the summer.
"It takes a lot of time in the off-season, doing 7 on 7 (drills), just working with Tanner, watching film, seeing different ways we can attack defenses," Campanaro said. "We have a great relationship on and off the field. You can definitely see it out there. I can tell when he wants me to maybe break a route off short, working the middle of the seams."
Wake receivers coach Lonnie Galloway said Price and Campanaro have developed good chemistry.
"Tanner knows that 99 percent of the time if he throws the ball toward Mike or near Mike he's going to catch it," Galloway said. "That's just a relationship that they've built during the summer when it's hot. It's just a part of finding that guy that when you need a first down, I'm going to try to get him the ball."
Before the season, no one was quite sure how effective Campanaro would be without Chris Givens, now in the NFL. Givens pressured defenses and caught 83 balls for nine touchdowns and an average of 16 yards per catch. Campanaro complemented him with 73 catches and a pair of TDs.
"Chris definitely would stretch the field and the safeties would have to hold back," Campanaro said. "I think this year we'll see more safeties coming down on me. We have receivers more than capable of stretching the field."
Against UNC, Price completed 13 passes to Campanaro but also 14 to other players. Early in the game, Brandon Terry made his presence felt. Later, especially on the 93-yard game-winning drive, Terence Davis and Sherman Ragland III made crucial catches. In fact, Campanaro drew so much attention that he caught only one pass in that drive.
"Great players affect the other guys on a team," Fisher said. "What he's doing is demanding single coverage for them and when he gets double coverage he's making all those players around him better. That's what a great player does."
So exactly who is Michael Campanaro?
He comes from Clarksville, Md., which is in the vicinity of Baltimore. At River Hill High School he was a running back who racked up all kinds of yards and touchdowns. But at 5-10, 190, he figured he would be recruited as a receiver. At Wake he red-shirted his first year and began to learn the slot position. He played sparingly as a freshman, catching 10 balls for 107 yards (he also played one game at running back). Last season he had a breakout year.
Catching passes isn't the only way he's a threat. Campanaro returned kickoffs his first two seasons and punts last year, taking one 50 yards for a TD against Clemson. To him, returning punts is the most exciting part of the game.
"I love punt returns, that's hands down my favorite," he said. "You can just change the game back there returning punts, I did it in high school a lot and had a blast doing it. It's your own creative play once you get the ball. There's no really designed play; you just do what you want to do."
The toughest thing about learning to play slot receiver was learning coverages and how they are disguised. He has learned the nuances of changing his route when the defense dictates it.
"There was one play Saturday where I could have given him a minus grade," Galloway said. "He was running a little 4-yard crossing route but he ended up 10 yards deep. I said 'what are you doing?' He said, 'coach, I saw the linebacker widening out and I didn't want to run at that angle so I took it up a little bit.' That was a good reason.
"You have to be committed to work the middle of the field and you have to be committed to understanding where the dangers are, especially when people are playing zone, and he understands it well."
Although he tries to avoid big hits, Campanaro knows he's going to receive some blows by constantly running across the middle of the field. Safeties and linebackers can leave an imprint. Still, he relishes the role and his running back skills are an asset, enabling him to weave through traffic and making defenders miss.
"I love playing the slot," he said. "I think playing running back in the past helps me out as well, just being able to run after the catch (and with) ball security."
Game preparation is an essential part of his game, too. Campanaro said he and Galloway are "film rats," constantly looking for ways to combat what defenses are trying to accomplish.
"You're only going to be as good as when you're watching tape," Galloway said, "and see how people are playing it, how people have success against it. He just has a knack and quickness and speed to be able to get to places. It's just a feel, sometimes (based on) how people are trying to adjust to him."
Against Florida State last season, in Wake's 35-30 win, Campanaro caught four passes for 60 yards and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Davis. He expects the Seminoles to be ready for him with their fans in full voice with the "Tomahawk Chop." Wake is playing the chant through loudspeakers in practice this week.
"They've got a lot of great players on that defense, a lot of great athletes," Campanaro said. "There's no secret about what they do - they're going to get up in your face. You're going to see a lot of man-to-man coverage. We're just excited for the challenge.
"I like dealing with guys in close areas. I feel like I can use my quickness and can get away from guys. It's going to be a lot of fun. They play a lot of man so you've got to bust out your best stuff for them."
In other words, "The Slot Machine" expects to pay off again.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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