Throughout a coaching career spanning more than two decades, University of Iowa wide receivers coach Erik "Soup" Campbell has coached over a dozen players into the ranks of the NFL.
Of those former pupils, the Eagles employ two. And while they are separated by different schools and six years in age, Jason Avant and rookie Marvin McNutt are bonded by the man who helped shape their professional careers.
Molding A Wide Receiver
McNutt didn't begin his college career as a receiver. He came to Iowa a quarterback, which is not surprising given his 6-3, 200-pound frame. But what is surprising is the transformation he went through following his freshman season.
"I saw a guy who was on the sidelines, giving signals and being a backup quarterback," Campbell said. "And I joked with Marvin about playing receiver, and he looked at me like I was crazy."
But this wasn't just some idle suggestion. While coaching at Michigan, Campbell moved then-quarterback Steve Breaston to wide receiver. Breaston finished his career fifth on the school's all-time receptions list. Campbell saw in McNutt that same talent and athleticism.
"Those guys, they have the athletic ability," Campbell said. "And Marvin was a high school basketball player also… so he was an athlete. (He had) those traits you wanted as a receiver, so the big thing you do is teach him how to run routes, how to get off the line of scrimmage; those types of things."
The following season McNutt did indeed switch to receiver, and under Campbell's tutelage became Iowa's all-time leading receiver in just over two seasons. McNutt finished his career with 170 receptions, 2,861 yards and 28 touchdowns.
McNutt's transition from quarterback to receiver was helped not only by his pure athleticism, but by his experience throwing to receivers.
"I knew where to be at the right time, where I was supposed to go and where the play was, so that wasn't the issue," McNutt said. "(It was about) learning how to be a receiver, learning how to get off the line and use my body and hands as best as I know how."
Of course, he had just a little help from his coach.
"Literally everything I know about the receiver position, besides the stuff I learned here… I learned from him," McNutt said.
A Mentor In The Locker Room
McNutt was drafted by the Eagles in the sixth round, and is battling for a roster spot. Campbell was excited to see his pupil in Philadelphia for reasons that go beyond X's and O's.
"I was excited for him to be drafted by the Eagles because they're a great franchise," Campbell said. "They're a great organization, great coaching staff, and of course he has Jason there who was one of mine. So I was excited for him to have the opportunity to be mentored by an older player like that."
Campbell still uses footage of Avant's Michigan days to illustrate how to play the game. Because of that, McNutt already had some background on Avant before meeting him.
"I always talked to my guys about Jason and showed film on Jason, so (McNutt) had a little familiarity with Jason walking in the door, so it wasn't like he was a total stranger," Campbell said. "And I thought he'd be a great mentor for a guy like Marvin to come in and learn from him and teach him how to be an NFL professional football player."
Even in his brief stint with the Eagles, McNutt has been able to look to Avant for help.
"He's a great pro and he does his job well," McNutt said. "Anything there is to learn, he's somebody who can help teach you."
"I always talk to (McNutt); I hope that he does well and makes the team," Avant said. "It's a bond because we know the same coach. We've been taught similar things… I believe that Marvin is a good player, and coach is our common denominator."
A Blue-Collar Education
Campbell remembers well the first time he met Avant. Campbell was coaching for Michigan then, and was running a scouting camp for high school seniors. As he watched, he noticed the teenaged Avant laying out for every pass, even the duds. And there were a lot of duds.
After watching Avant dive without pads for every pass that came his way, Campbell asked Avant to knock it off. After all, and Campbell was trying to recruit him and didn't want him getting hurt. Avant's response stays with Campbell to this day.
"Coach, that's the only way I know how to play."
"And from that moment on, he hasn't changed," Campbell said. "I loved seeing him when he did things like that in practice every day. It was his job to catch it and he was going to do it."
This is the Avant who Eagles fans have come to know and love. His hard work, grit and willingness to do the dirty work make him a quintessential blue-collar player in a city that craves those traits from its athletes.
But what fans may not know is just how far back those traits go.
"I was a kid from Chicago," Avant said. "We played dive football on the concrete, so diving on grass wasn't a hard thing. And that's a true story."
Avant's rough upbringing helped shape him into the man he is today. But many of the things he learned from Campbell have shaped the foundation of Avant as a professional.
"I learned so much as far as preparation for the game," Avant said. "We used to do book reports on opposing corners for the upcoming year. I just remember those types of things that hold a lot of value now… I remember the criteria that he wanted. He didn't want soft receivers, he always wanted tough guys."
But the most important piece of advice Avant received from Campbell is something he still takes to heart – as a receiver, you can't control your catches. But you can control what you do when you're on the field.
At Michigan, receivers were graded on a 'pluses' system. They were judged not only by catches and touchdowns, but by the little things: did you block your man? Were you open, even if the ball didn't come your way? Did you help block for your teammates when they caught the ball?
"Those are the things I judge myself by because I can't control if I get the ball," Avant said. "But I can control how hard I play each play and how effective I am each play. If I give 100 percent on every play, even if I catch one pass, I did my job."
In college, doing the little things was more important than gaudy numbers and flashy plays. And it's something Avant says is missing in the NFL.
"To block a guy is not celebrated," he said. "To go out and play special teams… it's not celebrated to give extra effort when another guy catches the ball so they can get in the end zone. Those types of things are not celebrated, but at Michigan those things were celebrated. And it was taught by Coach Campbell how important it was."
Instead of fueling individual competition, Campbell embraced a complete team approach. A catch for one player was a catch for all of them. They even had a nickname – Campbell's Catching Crew.
"When Braylon (Edwards) caught 1,000 yards, we all had it," Avant said. "That's the way we thought about it."
It should come as no surprise, then, that Avant is the kind of selfless, no-nonsense leader he is.
"Jason hasn't changed a bit," Campbell said. "A lot of guys get to the NFL and all of a sudden become superstars; untouchable type of guys. But Jason always stayed grounded and humble. In college, he was that way… He never got big-headed. Jason was a starter at Michigan and also became a captain. He stayed grounded."
"I Would Want To Coach Players The Way He Coached Me"
Campbell is quick to sing the praises of his players, but he is just as quick to deflect the praise from himself.
"It's all about the players," he said. "Those guys were very humble and were able to take coaching and those guys worked at it. I try to give them all the knowledge I have and just teach them how to do everything, and teach them the right way… I don't see anything special about me."
Needless to say, Avant and McNutt disagree.
"I believe that he deserves a lot of credit," Avant said. "He knew how to motivate each of us in our own different way. A coach can try to coach every guy the same, but that's not really accurate, because every personality is different.
"Some of the stuff I learned from 'Soup' I still use today. And actually, I was ahead of the curve when it came to route running because of him. When I got to the NFL, a lot of guys here don't know how to run routes. They're so fast that they're used to getting open by being fast. But everybody can run here. That's the one caveat… So you have to learn how to run routes."
"He puts it in us that we have confidence," McNutt said. "As he gives us, we give the same way back. We listen to what he says, and we do it. And really that's what it comes down to. When you have a relationship with someone you trust, you don't mind doing what they ask you to do, because you feel that's what is the right thing.
"He's a great coach. If I would ever become a coach, I would want to coach players the way he coached me."
The mutual love and respect between players and coach stay strong, even after leaving college. Campbell still speaks to McNutt and Avant several times a year, and plans to be with them through every step of their careers.
"When they're younger in their careers, usually once a week I'll talk to them during the season and just touch base or text them; make sure things are going all right," Campbell said. "Once those guys are associated with me I call them all my sons. So I follow those guys pre-draft, post-draft, pre-NFL season, post-NFL career.
"They're always with me forever."
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