Season Wrapup: Hawatha Bell

With the graduation of 11 players who signed a Letter-of-Intent last February, including an impressive five to BCS schools, Matthews (N.C.) Butler relied heavily on North Carolina verbal commitment Hawatha Bell this season.

"Losing so many starters, we had several other starters back, but [Bell] was that one constant that had been a starter three years earlier," Butler head coach Mike Newsome said. "I think a lot of guys looked to Hawatha for his on the field leadership for him to be making plays, which would in turn transfer over to those guys making plays."

Bell, a 6-foot-1, 228-pound linebacker, responded directly and indirectly.

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"He garnered a lot of opponents' attention, so that allowed a lot of other people to make plays," Newsome said. "He didn't have the stats this year that he's had in past years, but I'll tell you there wasn't one offense that we played that didn't know where he was at before every snap. Even to the point where some teams were pointing him out before every single play."

Bell ended the season with 74 tackles (39 solo), including ten for a loss and six sacks. He also returned an interception for a touchdown.

While offensive and defensive production was the most visible void created by the graduation losses, an equally important vacancy existed in the team leadership role, which Bell adequately filled.

"He stepped up and became a better leader [this season]," Newsome said. "He always had the physical assets and the ability to play football. But I think he did a better job of being a leader this year more so than he has in the past – that's where he stepped up the most is being that senior leader that this team was really needing."

Despite the graduation losses, Butler ended the season in the third round of the NCHSAA 4AA playoffs with a 12-2 record.

"Although we always want to get better, I think that we exceeded a lot of people's expectations – and even a lot of our own expectations," Newsome said.

In one of the traditionally tougher areas of the state, Butler escaped the regular season with just one loss – a 42-31 defeat by nationally ranked Charlotte (N.C.) Independence in the season ending rivalry game.

Butler cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs defeating Mocksville (N.C.) Davie, 24-0, and Charlotte (N.C.) Providence, 45-7.

In the third round, Butler met its rival, Independence, once again. This time around, Independence left no doubt, beating Butler 49-7.

"Basically on defense we didn't play like ourselves," Bell said. "If you would have come and watched us play, you would have thought we were another defense. We didn't play like we needed to or how we're capable of playing."

Looking back on the season, the two loses to Independence will be remembered more than overcoming the overwhelming graduation loses.

"There were a lot of issues," Newsome said of Butler's difficult with Independence. "We've always had a problem getting over the difference in size of our offensive lines and defensive lines. They probably average about 300 pounds on their offensive line and we're sitting with 210-pound defensive linemen; and then the same thing when you flip sides. So I think there's a size factor, they've always been much bigger than us.

"Too, I think has always been a factor is their depth. We've always had to get towards the end of the season and then hold our team together with duct tape. They seem to have a tremendous amount of depth, which is really good for any football team."

Bell primarily played outside linebacker for Butler. However, he also lined up at middle linebacker and even put his hand on the ground and played defensive end.

On the collegiate level, Newsome believes Bell could play anywhere in the linebacker corps.

"That's what's good with Hawatha – he could play either inside or outside [linebacker]," Newsome said. "He has the size that people are looking for to play the inside, and then he has the speed to play inside."

According to Bell, Tommy Thigpen, UNC's linebackers coach, feels the same way.

"He said [I could play] all three positions of linebacker," Bell said.

With the graduation of Mark Paschal and Chase Rice, middle linebacker is one of the biggest open spots on UNC's defense next fall.

"I think [Bell] can step in and play immediately – he's got that kind of ability," Newsome said. "He's already 230 pounds, which makes him as big as most college linebackers.

"The biggest adjustment in college is changing over to the speed of the game. But he has the speed there; it's just a matter of consistently being able to use it. I think he can step in and play immediately for Carolina or anyone else."

Bell is completely aware of the opportunity that's available.

"I'm just going to go in there [with my] mouth shut and just prove myself," Bell said. "I'm not going to go in there and expect that I'm going to start. I know I have to work for everything."

Although he says his commitment to UNC is firm, Bell is contemplating visiting other schools.

"I talked to Clemson and I talked to Illinois," Bell said. "I got to get my mind straight if I want to go ahead and stick with not going to any colleges, or if I should go ahead and take some more visits."

Bell says he should know relatively soon whether he'll visit other schools or not. On Thursday evening, Bell hosted an in-home visit with Thigpen, Butch Davis, and fellow commitment and close friend Josh Hunter.

"Basically, my parents asked a lot of questions," Bell said. "[We talked about] everything about UNC, especially academics."

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