Playing in the GoDaddy.com Bowl has become a rite of winter for Jake Campbell, a 2009 graduate of Belleville East.
The 6-foot-6, 331-pound redshirt senior offensive lineman at Arkansas State is in Mobile, Ala., for the third consecutive year as the Red Wolves (7-5) prepare to face the Ball State Cardinals (9-2) at 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.
"It's definitely exciting," Campbell said Thursday in a phone interview. "It's kind of familiar at this point, which is pretty cool. I guess the first time, you're a little bit awestruck with the whole process and everything. By the time you get to the third one, you're a little more settled in. You're a little more ready for it."
The GoDaddy.com Bowl is in its fourth year after previously being known as the Mobile Alabama Bowl and the GMAC Bowl. Arkansas State lost to Northern Illinois 38-20 in 2012, then defeated Kent State 17-13 last year.
"Last year, to win was a pretty big deal for me," Campbell said. "It was pretty exciting to finally get the school a 'W' in a big bowl game. The year before, it was pretty cool because I had been recruited and was clearly interested in going to NIU. To get a chance to see some of the guys that I saw at camps and stuff like that was pretty exciting."
Caging the Cardinals
Campbell, who has played every position on the offensive line except center during his career, is a backup to redshirt freshman Colton Jackson at right tackle. Campbell also sees time as a blocking tight end.
Campbell expects a huge struggle against Ball State, whose 481 points ranked second in the league to Northern Illinois. Defensively, Ball State has allowed just 298 points; only Bowling Green permitted fewer (222).
"They're real good on defense, from what I've heard," Campbell said. "I don't get to watch a lot of their offensive film, but we know their defense is good and we've heard a lot of good things about their offense. They're a pretty complete team. ... We have all the confidence in the world that we're going to pull it off."
The game, played at Ladd Peebles Stadium, typically pits the Mid-American Conference champion against the winner of the Sun Belt Conference. Arkansas State tied Louisiana-Lafayette for the Sun Belt Conference title this season. Louisiana-Lafayette went to the New Orleans Bowl and defeated Tulane 24-21 on Dec. 21.
"We weren't sure that we were going to get in. We kind of went out on a little bit of a sour note in our last game," Campbell said, referring to a 34-31 loss at Western Kentucky on Nov. 30. "So it's definitely exciting to get a second chance."
Campbell, 23, will have about a dozen family members and friends watching him from the stands, including his parents Brian and Cheri, sister Shannon Poynter and Shannon's 1 1/2-year-old son, Sampson.
"There are also some friends we're meeting out there," said Cheri Campbell, who works with her husband at Campbell's Automotive in Belleville. "We really want to take it in. It's our third year going to the same place. It's exciting, and the people in Mobile are amazing. They have been very welcoming."
Jake Campbell's youngest sister, Kelsey, will not be able to attend the game because of work responsibilities. Campbell's girlfriend, Jane Morrill, also will not be in attendance. Morrill is a 6-1 senior starter and the second-leading scorer on Arkansas State's women's basketball team, which will be returning to Jonesboro, Ark., after a game against Texas State in San Marcos, Texas.
Campbell's career at Arkansas State has been anything but routine.
Campbell had surgery on his left shoulder after the 2012 bowl game, a procedure that was repeated on his right shoulder immediately after the 2013 bowl game.
In addition to the surgeries, which repair torn labrums, Campbell has had four head coaches in four years.
Steve Roberts was the head coach when Arkansas State signed Campbell. Roberts was there through 2010, which was Campbell's first season after being redshirted in 2009.
Hugh Freeze took over in 2011 and left for Mississippi after the Red Wolves finished 10-2 overall and 8-0 in the Sun Belt Conference.
Gus Malzahn replaced Freeze and led Arkansas State to a 10-3 record and another Sun Belt Conference title in 2012. Malzahn, who had been the offensive coordinator at Auburn, returned to Auburn after the season to become the Tigers' head coach. Auburn will play Florida State on Monday for the national championship.
Bryan Harsin coached Arkansas State this season, but he left Dec. 11 to become head coach at Boise State.
Blake Anderson was hired Dec. 19 to replace Harsin, but Anderson will not coach the Red Wolves in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Instead, interim head coach John Thompson will call the shots.
"Obviously, some of the younger guys who came in with Coach Harsin might be feeling a little bit of something," Campbell said. "The older guys have been through it and will just look to lead and help them out. It's a unique situation. You just try to guide the younger kids and tell them it's all going to be OK."
Cheri Campbell is amazed at the Red Wolves' resiliency and consistency, considering the turnover at the top and on the staffs.
"To win three (conference) championships and to win them with three different coaching staffs ... (the players) haven't felt sorry for themselves, they haven't boo-hooed," she said. "They've bonded together and said, 'This can be done. We're going to do this.' They're there for each other."
Jake Campbell already has a bachelor's degree in education and is nearing a second degree in business. He hopes to be a high-school history teacher and coach and would love an opportunity to return to Belleville East and be a member of coach Tim Funk's staff.
"That would be the ultimate, to go back to the same high school I played at," Campbell said. "I love East. It would be a dream situation to get to go back there. In all reality, any school in the area would be a dream. I want to get on that field and help young men move forward in their football careers."
As his own career winds down, Campbell is glad he stuck with Arkansas State through all the injuries and the coaching merry-go-round.
"Probably the biggest compliment I've gotten so far ... was our last O-line coach was talking about all of us and he told me I was a good player who could have been a lot better if it wasn't for the injuries," Campbell said. "I told him, 'Even if I had to put myself together with duct tape, I was still going to be out on the field.'
"I don't have any regrets. This school has given me some of my best friends. It's given me a girl that I'm looking to propose to when she gets done with her basketball career. I wouldn't change anything."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.