CHARLOTTE — Carolina Panthers strong safety D.J. Campbell was giving directions in the defensive backfield Sunday.
Campbell was telling reserve free safety Colin Jones, seeing his first defensive snaps of the season, what adjustments he needed to make, what to be alert for, what routes the Atlanta receivers had run from similar formations.
That’s typical of a starter, but maybe less typical for a player such as Campbell, a rookie in the first start of his career, in only the second NFL game he had played.
“I thought he communicated well as a safety, which is an important part of the defense,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “He was getting Colin lined up. As a rookie starting your first game, sometimes it’s just enough to get yourself lined up, so it’s a start. But we’ve got to get better.”
Campbell was the Panthers’ seventh-round selection out of California, the team’s final pick of the 2012 draft. He was inactive in the first 10 games, not playing until Dec. 1 against Kansas City.
That was when Panthers coach Ron Rivera, with playoff expectations dashed, began looking to the future.
It was also the week Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, then himself, leaving a 3-month-old daughter parentless. The incident struck home for Campbell, whose father was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his mother when Campbell was 6 years old.
“I felt really bad for the daughter,” Campbell said. “She’s not going to grow up with a mom or dad. For some years I didn’t have either parent. I was raised by my aunt and uncle. I felt for the daughter and the struggles she’ll go through as she grows up and realizes what happened.”
Campbell, amid those emotions, had one tackle on seven defensive snaps against the Chiefs.
Against Atlanta, Campbell’s role expanded when strong safety Charles Godfrey could not play because of a sore back. Thirteen games into his rookie season, Campbell could say he was an NFL starter.
“For a bit it was surreal. As a kid you grow up thinking you’ll be a starting safety in the NFL,” Campbell said. “Initially I thought I would be a little nervous about it, but when the game came around, it’s just football. I just settled down from the get-go and played how I always have.”
He played every defensive snap against the Falcons, making three tackles as part of a patchwork secondary that included Jones at free safety for the second half and second-year cornerback James Dockery for most of the game.
The Panthers’ pass defense allowed 342 passing yards and two touchdowns from Matt Ryan, but they were able to eliminate the big plays.
Rivera plans to slide Godfrey to free safety if he’s healthy Sunday, to exploit Godfrey’s athleticism while leaving Campbell in the strong safety position he’s more comfortable with.
This might make Campbell the one receiving the orders rather than giving them.
“He’s real in tune with the game, he’s a smart guy and he listens,” Godfrey said. “I’m proud of him and I’m kind of coaching him through it as we go so that he can grow.”
Jones: 704-358-5223; Twitter: @jjones9