Cam Sample couldn't believe it.
He'd arrived at Shiloh High School aspiring to be the face of the Generals' offense.
He'd chosen jersey number four and pictured himself scoring touchdowns at quarterback or running back.
When the team decided to play him at linebacker, he swallowed his pride and got onboard. He even grew to love the position.
But defensive line?
That seemed a bridge too far.
"I think it was my junior year. Our D-coordinator said, 'You know, I kind of see you as more of a D-lineman.' I'm still thinking, 'I'm not a d-lineman, I play linebacker.' We butted heads on it for a little bit," Sample recalls with a smile.
You can't fault him for his hesitance.
At the time, Sample weighed roughly 210 pounds.
He also desperately wanted to play big-time college football. On the surface, suddenly changing positions prior to his crucial junior season seemed like a surefire recruiting blunder.
But his coaches at Shiloh saw something. They were a new staff who came to the program without preconceptions. While Sample wasn't built like a true hog molly, he wasn't exactly small, either. He also had a unique blend of speed, power, quickness and tenacity. Some of that came from his basketball background — growing up, he often played against cousins twice his age.
Sample's coaches believed moving him closer to the line of scrimmage would help him make a bigger impact. They also showed him the numerous defensive linemen around Georgia's Gwinnett County — often referred to as "The SEC of High School Football" — who were receiving college offers. They believed Sample could be just as good, if not better, than most of them.
That sold him. Sample began transforming his body and honing the abilities he'd need to thrive in the trenches.
"This new coaching staff really saw the opportunity for a bunch of us to play at the next level. Workouts started ramping up. We started having 5:00 a.m., 5:30 a.m. workouts," says Sample.
"Our D-line coach, he and his friend owned a gym about 15 minutes from the school. So I'd have morning workouts, go through my whole school day, then ride over and meet him to train for another two hours. It'd be film, weights, position drills — things like that. We kind of stuck with that grind for the rest of my high school career."
Sample played as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker his junior season. He put enough flashes on tape that year against elite competition to earn him several 1-AA offers.
Despite his hard work, Sample still weighed roughly 230 pounds heading into his senior season — a far cry from the prototypical college defensive lineman.
Shiloh also struggled to notch many wins in a fiercely competitive region.
Yet Sample focused on controlling what he could control and winning his individual battle each play. That mindset led him to rack up 50 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles as a senior.
But the big boys of college football never came knocking.
Many believed Sample was either too light or too short to have a natural position at the next level.
Tulane, however, came through with an offer. Head coach Willie Fritz would later say the program "took a chance" on Cam.
Sample jumped on the opportunity.
Though he'd trained intensely in high school, the first couple weeks of college workouts were still a jolt to his system.
"(I remember) coming in and getting shocked those first weeks of workouts seeing how tough it was going to be. The freshmen started doing some extra conditioning on our own because we didn't want to be too far behind the older guys," Sample says.
Sample quickly proved he played bigger than his weight. He appeared in 11 games for the Green Wave and tallied 26 tackles as a true freshman. He was also named to the AAC All-Academic Team.
Prior to the next season, Fritz gushed about Sample's potential.
"(Cam's) what we call a Tulane guy — he checks all the boxes," Fritz told reporters. "He is only going to get bigger and better. He's got a chance to be a great one — he really does."
Sample got off to a scorching start to his sophomore season.
An early game took the team to Columbus to battle the fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. OSU's offense boasted talented playmakers like J.K. Dobbins and Dwayne Haskins.
Though the outcome wasn't in Tulane's favor, Sample was extremely disruptive, racking up 9 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
"You see (Ohio State's) one of the top two or three best teams every year growing up," says Sample.
"I had some really good production. Mentally, that (game) kind of said for me, 'I can really do this. I can play football at this level.' I still had a long way to go, but just being able to go out there and perform like that against a team like that really did a lot for my confidence."
The very next week, Sample tallied two sacks and two tackles for loss in a win over Memphis.
Yet his momentum was soon derailed by a torn meniscus. Sample elected to put off surgery and play through the pain only to have a sprained ankle further compound the damage. He persevered but ultimately finished the season with middling production.
The ordeal led Sample to realize every snap was precious. He vowed to do all he could to stay healthy and play to his full potential from that point forward.
"Battling through that knee injury was real difficult for me. I knew I wasn't 100% healthy out there, but I was fighting for my team. It kind of changed my mindset. (I realized) these chances are really limited and there's no guarantee you're going to have a healthy year," says Sample.
"My thought process going into that next off-season was to get as healthy as I could so I could take advantage of my opportunity."
He leaned into his preparation. Sample studied the art of trench warfare and learned how to dissect film under the tutelage of former Tulane defensive line coach Kevin Peoples, who's now at Indiana.
"Coach Peoples is probably the most technical guy I've ever come across. Seeing the way he broke down film and how it could give us an edge during the game (made me) want to pick his brain and see what he saw and what he was looking for. Once I saw how much it helped, I was sold on it. I started becoming a film junkie," says Sample.
The coaches at Tulane were impressed by Sample's hard work and team-first attitude.
So much so that they accommodated Sample's request to switch from jersey number 55 to the glitzier number 5.
Numbers carry meaning in every sport. In football, if you weigh over 280 pounds (which by that point, Sample did) but rock a single-digit number, you better make some plays.
Sample proved himself worthy.
He started every game for Tulane in 2019 and finished with 44 tackles. While his numbers weren't gaudy, he brought a disruptive presence to the defense and helped the Green Wave win consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history.
Sample was well-respected inside the program, yet he still hadn't received much national attention. He knew his senior season would need to be special to draw real interest from the NFL.
Then Covid-19 shocked the sports world.
Tulane canceled in-person classes. Students were sent home for several months. Sample refused to use it as an excuse.
The year prior, he'd occasionally found himself gassed during long drives or crunch-time sequences. He knew that improving his conditioning could help him level up on the field.
"(When) we got sent home, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. I knew conditioning had to be a thing for me. That was definitely something I wanted to improve going from junior to senior year and taking the next step to the NFL. When I'm out there, I want to be going a hundred miles an hour. I don't (want) me not being in shape to be the reason my production is falling or I'm not playing at the level I should be. That was really important for me," Sample says.
While at home, Sample began jogging around his neighborhood and running sprint intervals on a treadmill in his humid Georgia garage. The regimen helped him improve his body composition and get down to a muscular 275 pounds.
Sample and his teammates returned to Tulane in the summer to enter an off-season "bubble" that allowed them to workout and practice together.
Yet the dark possibility of a cancelled season loomed over every rep.
Meanwhile, preseason accolades trickled in for Sample.
Phil Steele tabbed him as a 2020 preseason All-AAC selection. He was also added to the 2021 Reese's Senior Bowl top 250 list, meaning a productive season would likely earn him an invite to the prestigious NFL prospect all-star game.
Tulane's coaching staff also approached Sample about an expanded role.
While he'd primarily played as a defensive end in a three-man front up to that point, the Green Wave staff thought deploying him as a stand-up edge rusher, as well, could give their opponents headaches.
"(Cam's) a smart football player," Fritz told reporters in August.
"He'll play inside the tackle and outside the tackle. He's big and strong enough and plays with great technique that he can play inside the tackle and play big boy football. He's also quick and got such good change of direction and speed that he can play on the outside of the tackle. It's a different ballgame. Not a lot of guys can do that."
Fellow Tulane defensive lineman Patrick Johnson predicted a breakout season for his close friend.
"A lot of guys don't realize how explosive (Cam) is. His pass rushing is going to be huge for us this season," Johnson said.
"There are no limits for him … I can see him being an All-American this year."
When Tulane met South Alabama for their first game of 2020, the program released a collective sigh of relief. They would have a season after all.
And Sample's new role combined with his continued physical and mental development proved to make for a perfect storm.
In a sign of things to come, he rampaged over the South Alabama offensive line to total
seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two QB hits and a forced fumble. On the back of Sample's heroic performance, Tulane pulled off a narrow win.
Sample's improved play was as much about his increased mental aptitude for the game as it was his physical ability. He'd learned how to quickly identify an opposing lineman's plan of attack and how to maximize the effectiveness of the many weapons in his pass-rush arsenal.
"There are a variety of things an offensive lineman can do (after the snap) — they can jump set you, deep set you, kind of short set you. So being able to diagnose that quickly and respond to it is a big thing for me," Sample says.
"From film study, they kind of show where they shoot their hands or different things they do like that. So me working on my hands and being able to knock those hands down, or show a fake and get underneath them, or fake one way then go inside — (I really started to) play that chess game with the offensive lineman."
Sample recalls how that sort of intel led to a banner day for himself and the rest of the Green Wave D-line in the team's victory over Memphis.
'We did our usual things studying the offensive linemen and the offense. We had a really good game plan for how the o-linemen would set, how they would protect, and the downs and distances where the quarterback would hold the ball and give us really good time to get pressure," says Sample.
Tulane's "trench dawgs" feasted on the Tigers' offense in an authoritative victory, helping force four turnovers and holding Memphis to a meager 300 yards of total offense.
When the dust settled on Sample's 2020 season, he'd tallied 51 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Yet the vast majority of his production didn't show up in the box score.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sample's 22.6% win percentage ranked number one in the nation among defensive linemen with at least 250 snaps while his 48 total QB pressures ranked fourth.
Sample earned first-team All-AAC honors for his efforts and PFF ranked him the 60th-best player in college football.
But perhaps most importantly, Sample secured his invite to the 2021 Senior Bowl.
The Senior Bowl is an all-star game where the best NFL Draft prospects who have completed their college eligibility can showcase their talents. A week of practice followed by the game itself would give Sample ample opportunity to prove himself in front of key NFL personnel.
While he arrived intending to show his caliber as an edge defender, opportunity quickly presented itself.
"We had a couple injuries on our side in practice. Our coach said, 'Look, a bunch of guys are going to have to play both (inside and outside). So just get your mind ready for it.' I bounced from one day playing defensive end to the next day playing inside and three-tech," says Sample.
"Then as the game's approaching, (coach) said, 'Y'all can get more reps if you want to kick inside. If any volunteers want to get out there and get seen, go for it.' My mindset was that I'm a football player. Just line me up and I'll make something work. I just took on his challenge and started cooking from there."
One big winner this pre-draft process has been @GreenWaveFB versatile DL Cam Sample. Won consistently during Senior Bowl 1-on-1's with great cross-face quickness. Most teams had @cameron_sample graded in 4th/5th rounds back in the fall but now feel he won't make it out of Day 2. pic.twitter.com/IsAv0uCaNW
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) April 15, 2021
Sample was dominant during every stage of the event. He utilized his dizzying blend of speed, power and technique to torment opponents in one-on-one drills, leading the offensive linemen in attendance to name him Defensive Lineman of the Week for the American team.
Sample hunted down seven tackles along with a half-sack during the Senior Bowl to earn Defensive Player of the Game honors.
"He's so disruptive," ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said of Sample after his impressive performance.
"He plays with an attitude and plays hard every play. He doesn't have any lack in his ability to show consistency in terms of motivation and hustle. Some guys take plays off. Cameron Sample doesn't."
Kiper recently mocked Sample to the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 95th overall pick.
While Sample can't predict where he'll land, he's straightforward when he sums up what he'll bring to an NFL franchise.
"They're getting a guy who just wants to come in and work and win. I'll just put on my boots everyday, come in the office, and just work," says Sample.
He classifies himself as a "lead-by-example" guy who'll speak up when necessary. On Twitter, he often hashtags accolades with #AGTG — short for "All Glory to God".
Sample can recall when big-time college programs weren't interested in him. Even though he's suddenly receiving prestigious awards and massive hype, he still knows it's the work outside the spotlight that truly matters.
When he reflects on his own past in search of advice to share with young athletes, Sample comes to a simple conclusion.
"Block out the noise and work," he says.
"Don't pay attention to what people are tweeting and ranking, the stars, things like that. If you're putting in the work and you're passionate about what you're doing, you'll get rewarded for it."
Photo Credit: Tulane Athletics
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