Bell Finds The Range And Gains The Confidence

The nerves, or as Devon Bell calls them the jitters, are finally gone. They evaporated as soon as that football split Troy's uprights. "Last week I was still kind of jittery. When I went out there and made it I was like, alright, now it's time to go. It felt really good to finally hit one and make it."

Not just one. Since breaking the proverbial ice, Bell has hit another and another and yet another. Maybe a four-good streak on field goals seems modest…but after a rough initiation into college placekicking this is completely positive for the true freshman.

Bell is now 4-of-7 through his first Mississippi State month, having knocked through all three attempts against South Alabama. And ‘knocked through' is an understatement. Any of those field goal tries would have been good from a good bit farther out than the official distances of 42, 42, and 31 yards. In fact, the 37-yarder at Troy for Bell's debut make landed way, way back in the end zone. And none of these were line-drives, either.

This kid really does have the ‘big leg' all recruited kickers are expected to bring to college. It just took him a few weekends of real, live trying for Bell to show he had the accuracy as well.

"In preseason there wasn't much nerves going on," Bell said. "But I had to go out there and actually put three points on the board…" That was the problem, starting with a 42-yard miss on Scott Field against Jackson State. A week later in the first SEC action attempts of 36 and 43 yards also miss-fired, one barely making the end zone.

This was not at all what Bell was signed to do. Or for that matter what he showed Dan Mullen in August. The head, and the kicking, coach was satisfied through camp the new kid was indeed his kicker. And Bell agrees the physical part was all in place leading up to opening night.

The mental part? Well…

"There was something in my head that I don't know if I'm going to make it or not," Bell can admit now. And as any specialist attests, lack of complete confidence inside the helmet goes directly to the foot. Or the feet and other involved parts in the mechanics of kicking. That debut miss was an obvious case of nerves getting the better of a freshman as Bell openly over-strode into the kick.

The others, including a couple of clanked point-afters at Troy with one missed, were actual technique items, per Bell. "Over-rotating too much, my plant foot where it's not supposed to be, dipping the shoulder. Just little stuff like that, it wasn't nothing major." What was major though was the support Bell received from the boss.

To the point Bell never felt his job was threatened by anything Mullen said. "No, he told me after every single kick I know you can make that. In practice I make them all the time. He just knew as a true freshman coming in kicking I was going to struggle a little bit. But now I'm good."

Good and expected to get better with time, experience, and success. Because by no means does Bell claim to be a finished product just yet. Those jitters have been shoved way to the back of his locker for now…but there is always the risk of paralysis by analysis with any specialist.

"When I hit a good ball, I know it's a good ball. But when I start thinking about it too much that's when I mess up. That's when it goes wrong with a lot of kickers."

Something else worth reminding about this kicker; a whole lot more went right for Bell in September than the obvious missed field goals and clanked PATs. By the way, he said he's never seen anything like what happened to him and backup Charlie Grandfield these past two weekends. After Bell banked balls off each upright on consecutive point-afters at Troy, it was the walk-on's turn to clank yellow metal Saturday night on Scott Field as he tried a 40-yarder. Mullen said he wanted to get the backup some more live experience too, and Grandfield did connect on three PATs in the Jackson State game just fine.

"Charlie is a good kicker," said Bell, coming to his comrade's defense. "But he went out there and he was cold, he hadn't been kicking since like halftime. He could have easily made that kick." And if Bell is an example, he will make it the next time.

It might not get as much attention as three- and one-point kicks. But Bell has proven himself a proficient kickoff man as well. He knocked three touch-backs against South Alabama, giving him five for the season in 18 kickoffs. That might not seem much of an average to the fan obsessed with booming balls into end zones.

But the Mississippi State fact is, touchbacks are not necessarily the aim of every kickoff. Sure, it's the safest way to play things, and Auburn showed the risks of returns with a 100-yard touchdown run. But remember, that kickoff did go a yard past the goal line anyway…and Mullen has much more problem with two coverage breakdowns by veterans. The kicker did his part. Bell is averaging over 64 yards now, compared to 59 for alternate Brian Egan.

That one big bust aside, coverage has been sound and as a result State likes tempting some teams to try bringing the ball back. The Jaguars did and as a result began series on their 22, 12, and 14 yards lines. Bell does his part by hanging his kicks.

"I guess that's a good benefit I have. If I don't hit it in the back of the end zone it's going to stay up there for three-and-a-half or four seconds and gives my team enough time to get down there and cover the kick."

Now the kicking crew, including P Baker Swedenburg and the return teams, have a free week to review any strengths and flaws through the first four wins. Then, apply them productively when SEC season resumes at Kentucky (11:21 CT). Bell might not have had the sort of start he'd hoped for, he agrees.

"But now it's a lot more relaxed and I'm ready to go." Even, he said, when his time comes for that kick that will win the game, or not. "I'm good to go and if it does happen I'll go out there and kick it."

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