If everything goes according to plan this season, the upside-laden Pittsburgh Panthers’ defensive line will be recognized among the nation’s best. While Jaylen Twyman and Patrick Jones II are universally perceived as the driving forces behind the unit’s inexorable rise, the superlative talent extends well-beyond the revered duo.

Redshirt senior Rashad Weaver will return from a knee injury that ended his 2019 campaign prematurely and has double-digit sack potential as the bookend to Jones. Deslin Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado, who elevated their play amid injuries last season, will serve as prominent rotational pieces.

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However, versatile DT Keyshon Camp will be the missing link that unlocks the defensive line’s full potential. Camp, who missed a sizeable portion of the past two seasons due to injury, is slated to start alongside Twyman to form an intriguing interior tandem. Entering the 2020 campaign healthy and with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, Camp appears primed for a long-awaited breakout season.

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Keyshon Camp at Lake Gibson High School

Before evolving into one of the nation’s premier defensive linemen at Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland, Florida, Keyshon Camp expressed a desire to try his hand on the offensive side of the ball.

“Coming in as a freshman,” Camp recalled, “I actually wanted to try out for wide receiver and tight end, but that didn’t go so well.”

Due to his abnormal strength, any hopes that Camp had of achieving offensive glory were effectively extinguished during a workout session. After comfortably hoisting up 315 pounds on the bench press, Camp caught the attention of Lake Gibson’s defensive line coach.

“He walked in and said, ‘Tomorrow, you’re not going to be with the offense, come to the defensive line,'” Camp said.

Despite initial unfamiliarity with the duties of his new role, Camp’s transition to the defensive line proved to be a rather seamless one.

The disruptive defender experienced early success, and before long, Camp was mentioned among the top defensive linemen in the country. The burly mauler accumulated 120 tackles over his final two seasons and served as the Braves’ primary catalyst in spearheading consecutive state playoff appearances.

Lauded as the country’s 17th-ranked defensive tackle by ESPN following a productive high school career, the Lakeland native garnered significant interest among recruiting circles.

“Signing day came down to the University of Southern California, Miami, Alabama, Michigan, and Pitt,” Camp recalled.

Camp decided on the University of Pittsburgh, primarily due to its family-oriented culture and head coach Pat Narduzzi’s refreshing transparency.

“When [Pat] Narduzzi came and recruited me, he said, ‘You’ll have the ability to play as a freshman. If you come in, work hard enough, and you beat the person out, you can play. But I’m not going to tell you that you’re going to play as a freshman. I want you to come here and get an education. I want you to leave the University of Pittsburgh with a college degree and a chance to go to the NFL.’

That opened my eyes up, and I realized that it’s not all about football — it’s also about being a man outside of football. He looked at me as more than an athlete, which made me want to come here even more.”

Camp’s redshirt freshman campaign

True to his word, Narduzzi and his coaching staff gave DT Keyshon Camp a legitimate opportunity to earn a role on a veteran-laden defensive line group. While Camp offered glimpses of promise in practice, the coaching staff ultimately believed the talented lineman would benefit from spending his first year on the sideline.

“It gave me a chance to get in the weight room and learn the playbook, so I could slow the game down even more,” Camp acknowledged.

On the heels of his first collegiate offseason, Camp returned for spring workouts with a noticeable chip on his shoulder, and his on-field dominance catapulted him up the Panthers’ depth chart. After a season of inactivity, the monstrous defensive lineman emerged as a redshirt freshman.

Appearing in 10 games, including eight starts, Camp compiled 19 tackles (1.0 for loss), a forced fumble, and an astounding four pass breakups. He missed games against Virginia and Miami with an injury — which proved to be foreshadowing for what was to come.

Tackling adversity

“I played the Notre Dame game,” Camp explained. “We were going back and forth with ’em; we were winning most of the game. With two minutes left, Rashad Weaver got a cramp, and I ran in the game. I played that drive, and the center came and back-blocked me. When he back-blocked me as I was trying to get through the hole, his helmet hit me straight in my shoulder, and my shoulder went out of place. I went to the sideline and said, ‘It’s out of place again.'”

With his first season in the rearview mirror, Camp wasted little time getting off to a fast start to his redshirt sophomore campaign — until a setback thwarted his ascent towards college football relevance.

Following the Syracuse game, Camp learned that he’d torn his labrum and would likely require surgery to mend the issue. Camp, who spent the week leading up to the Notre Dame game trying to rehabilitate the injury on his own, opted to play against the Fighting Irish. In the waning stages of the game, Camp sustained a direct hit to the injury, and his season was over.

After undergoing surgery, Camp attacked the arduous recovery process head-on. For four months, Camp rehabbed twice a day. While the team was practicing, Camp would rehab in the morning. He would then attend class before returning for an afternoon session. On weekends, when his teammates focused on the opposition, Camp was getting in extra work, determined to shorten his recovery time. After five months, Camp made a full recovery.

The 6-foot-4, 285-pound defensive tackle appeared in seven games in 2018 — including starts against Central Florida, Syracuse, and Notre Dame — and registered 14 tackles (2.5 for loss), and 2.0 sacks.

Turning the corner

“I just remember the ref saying, ’10, watch out, watch out. You’re cutting it close with the late hits.’ So, it was a move where I came out of my stance, double-swiped the guard, and got past him. They were on the 15-20-yard line, and I double-swiped him. I saw the quarterback right there, and I had the choice to either hit him or come to a complete stop. So, when I came to a complete stop, my knee kind of buckled and hyperextended.”

Appearing with the second-team defense at the start of spring practices, it wasn’t long before a resilient, rejuvenated Camp played his way back onto the first-team.

In the season opener against the Virginia Cavaliers, Camp was all over the field, flushing quarterback Bryce Perkins outside the pocket and forcing ill-advised throws. The Cavaliers offensive line struggled to contain the uber-active defender — until an awkward plant en route to Perkins sent a hobbling Camp to the sideline.

“I sat out the last drive before halftime,” Camp recalled, “When we went in, I decided to play with the brace on for the rest of the game. I went back out in the second half, then after maybe three or four plays, they get a first down and kept driving. I made a move and tried to plant in the ground, and it didn’t feel right. I ran back over to the sideline and stayed out the rest of the game.”

While Camp kept a positive outlook as he looked on from afar, associating the pain with a nagging hamstring pull or a sprain that would only sideline him a couple of weeks, he received word shortly after the game he’d torn his anterior cruciate ligament. His comeback season was over before it began. He managed a half-sack and two quarterback hits on just 19 snaps.

“For probably two or three weeks, I kind of drowned in my sorrows,” Camp admitted. “I started thinking, ‘Why me? What could I have been doing better in my training and getting ready for the season for it not to happen?'”

Realizing that his NFL dreams were still very much in-tact, Camp approached his long road to recovery much like the previous year: Head-on. Camp wouldn’t have to navigate through an extensive rehab process alone this time, however. Fellow defensive lineman Rashad Weaver tore his anterior cruciate ligament merely two weeks prior and was on a near-identical timeline.

“It’s crazy that me and Weav went through the same thing,” Camp said. “That’s my brother. Training with him and rehabbing with him, we just pushed each other and told each other, ‘God did this for a reason — he didn’t want you to leave before me, and didn’t want me to leave before you.’ I said ‘We’re gonna overcome this, and when it’s time to step on the field in 2020, they’ll be like ‘Dang, these two didn’t lose a step.'”

The two defensive cohorts tirelessly competed day in and day out throughout the process, and always picked each other up on adverse days. Camp regained full strength in his knee after five months but was able to run and cut without restriction after the eight-month mark.

Nearly a full calendar year since their respective injuries, Camp and Weaver complete the most feared defensive front four in college football.

Pitt DT Keyshon Camp’s 2020 outlook

The coronavirus pandemic that essentially put the world on pause in March enabled Camp to extend his rehabilitation process and get the requisite rest while continuing his weight training regimen. By the time players report to Pittsburgh for fall camp, the enigmatic defensive lineman will be firing on all cylinders.

The missing link on the defensive line, the prospects of Camp’s versatility, athleticism, quick-twitch burst, and ability to read and diagnose plays playing beside Jaylen Twyman could launch the Panthers’ defense into college football’s elite tier.

For Camp, who has missed the better part of the past two seasons, the wait has been a long time coming.

“The dog has been locked in the cage for a long time,” Camp said. “The dog is ready to eat.”

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