After Passing on Him Two Years Ago, Buckeyes Must Answer the Bell
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It seems ironically fitting that Mike Tressel was the one who recruited Le’Veon Bell to Michigan State two years ago.
The Spartans’ linebackers and special teams coach is the son of former Ohio State running backs coach Dick Tressel, which would also make him the nephew of ex-OSU head coach Jim Tressel.
Bell is Michigan State’s 6-2, 244-pound bruiser of a tailback who leads the Big Ten in rushing this season at over 152 yards per game. Nobody else in the conference is within 40 yards of that after four games this season.
“He’s a patient runner,” Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers said this week.
“He does a nice job of setting up blocks within their offense and their power game. I think he does a nice job of cutting back. He knows when to cut back, and he knows where the soft spots in the defense are.”
After rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore a year ago, Bell is on pace to rumble for nearly 2,000 yards on the ground as a junior in 2012. He has already posted a pair of 200-yard rushing games this season, including 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 44 carries in a 17-13 win over Boise State.
Bell also caught six passes for 55 yards in that season-opening win for Mark Dantonio, and he is coming off a 253-yard performance on the ground against Eastern Michigan.
“He knows when to take it on the edge,” Withers added.
“He does a nice job with a stiff-arm out on the edge. He’ll lower his shoulder inside. He’s built as an I-back, insider runner. I think it fits what they’re trying to do offensively.”
In many aspects, Bell is what they’re trying to do offensively. After sharing the backfield with Edwin Baker and Larry Caper a year ago, Bell has emerged as the feature back in Dantonio’s downhill rushing attack.
With junior Andrew Maxwell struggling to replace Kirk Cousins at the quarterback position, and with B.J. Cunningham now playing at the next level, Bell has been just about the only thing going for the Spartans in the early season.
That’s nothing new for Bell, a native of Reynoldsburg, who was a one-man show at Groveport Madison High School.
“I know in high school they would feed him the ball 30 or 40 times a game, and that's the same at Michigan State,” Ohio State fullback Zach Boren said.
“He's a great player and powerful runner.”
Boren played his high school ball just down the road at Pickerington Central, and he was well-acquainted with Bell as a local high school hero around Columbus. He ran for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior at Groveport Madison.
He earned some early offers from schools like Marshall, Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green, but it was Cincinnati assistant Tim Hinton who was among those recruiting Bell the hardest heading into his senior season.
Now the tight ends and fullbacks coach with Ohio State, Hinton was an assistant with the Bearcats under Brian Kelly when Bell was a senior in high school. He was also being recruited by Dick Tressel, who was going against his son Mike.
“I have been to Ohio State a bunch of times,” Bell told Rivals.com back in Nov. of 2009.
“I just went to the Iowa game. It was nice and a good atmosphere. They are recruiting me as a running back. They are not sure if they would offer soon, maybe sometime in January. They have to see how things come along. But they do want me to save an official visit for them. I am open to all schools, but I do like Ohio State.”
Photo by Dan Harker
Only Bell never got that offer from the Buckeyes. He rushed for over 1,300 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior that fall, but Ohio State had already landed a commitment from a more high-profile running back named Rod Smith.
With Carlos Hyde also in the class after spending a year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, there was simply no room available for Bell. It wasn’t long after Smith committed to OSU in December that Bell picked up a late offer from the Spartans.
He quickly pulled the trigger and enrolled in January for winter classes. Bell didn’t do much against Ohio State in Michigan State’s 10-7 win in Columbus a year ago (50 yards on 14 carries), but the Buckeyes are well aware of who No. 24 is this year.
“Get him before he gets to you,” OSU safety Orhian Johnson said of his plan for slowing down the 240-pound tailback.
“That’s the thing. You definitely want to get to him before he gets started because he’s real top-heavy. You know he’s going to run down the field, and he’s got good feet so you can’t just chop at him. You’ve got to make sure you get up there and wrap him up and wait for your boys.”
The “boys” haven’t been getting there early or often enough for Ohio State this fall. The Buckeyes currently rank seventh in the Big Ten against the run and dead-last in total defense after four games.
Their poor tackling has been the topic of conversation around Columbus over the last month, and Withers knows they will have to be much improved on Saturday against a guy who isn’t going to be brought down by arm-tackles.
“We’re going to have to make sure we keep him sideways and not let him go north and south,” he said.
“That’s got a lot to do with leveraging the football. Tackling, a lot of times, starts with leveraging the football. If you can leverage the football and get guys that you want inside and outside the ball carrier, then you should tackle him.”
Should being the operative word.
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