Bell Can Ring In New Year With Points Record

Three tackles for an entire season won't win the attention of linebackers and safeties who can tally that total in a single series. For Devon Bell, it's a different perspective. "My whole high school career I think I had maybe three tackles!"

Of course Bell wasn't brought to Mississippi State to tackle the ballcarrier, he came to kick the ball. And here at the end of his first college season the true freshman finds himself already owning or closing in on records. Beginning with points by a placekicker; Bell's 77 so far in the rookie year matches Brian Hazelwood's total for 13 games back in 1998.

And just how closely was he keeping track of this record-setting pace? "Not at all, actually," he grinned, wryly. "A person just informed me about it." So much for obsession with statistics, hey? Yet the fact is Bell not only will set a standard (for his position, as the total points marks belong to backs) with his first successful point-after or field goal in the Gator Bowl.

For that matter Bell already owns the season made-PAT mark with 41 having surpassed the former mark of 39 by Scott Westerfield (2000). Naturally such a record relies on his teammates scoring enough six-pointers so Bell can kick for the seventh, and the Bulldog offense certainly did its part this year.

Yet these totals still surprise the freshman. "I felt like I kicked a good bit but not nearly as much as people have told me." For the regular season Bell had a dozen field goals to go with the point-afters.

Maybe Bell wasn't keeping close track of his numbers, but the feats ought not have been too surprising based on his recruiting ratings. The consensus top placekicking prospect in Mississippi last year, Bell was a first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated even though he only got to boot four total field goals as a senior at Warren Central High. It was his 28 touchbacks, out of 32 kickoffs, that showed the leg's potential and earned scholarship offers from most Southern states programs. The day he signed, Coach Dan Mullen said he had his placekicker.

Fans took a little more convincing, and not just because folk in the stadium seats are by nature prone to place greater faith in unseen walk-on kickers. What they did see was the rookie miss his first three three-point attempts at Scott Field, all of middling range and one blocked by Auburn. Bell even clanked a pair of PATs in the third weekend at Troy, though one banked-through the goal; the other was his only miss all year.

Bell said it was simply the pace of the college game that he had to catch-up to. "It was a lot faster than I thought it was going to be. It took a real big adjustment when we played Auburn the first game, I saw how fast the SEC actually was. And I had to make the quick adjustment, and I'm glad I did."

By quick adjustment, Bell means simply fine-tuning a few technical items such as plant-foot placement. He found out the hard way about striding too far on a slick field in the opener, for example. But mostly it was a matter of tweaking his internal clock, so as to be in-synch with the snap and placement. "Field goals you have to be a lot faster, just get-off times and stuff like that. It takes a lot more effort and speed to do that."

Bell was able to connect on twelve of his last 16 tries for a respectable rookie season. And there were no PAT issues at all after Troy. He said there hasn't been time to go through review of all his regular-season placekicks yet.

"We watch the game film, that's when I usually get to watch my latest kicks. But I'm just going to work more in the off-season this year and try to get better for next year."

It won't only be kicking out of a spot that Bell busies himself with come spring. Early in the season he split kickoff duties with Brian Egan before State's staff went full-time with the younger guy. Bell kicked off 56 times in all with a dozen touchbacks and just one ending up out-of-bounds. Not bad, but also not good enough.

"I'm going to really work on my field goals and my kickoffs. Kickoffs this year were not what I wanted at all, I wanted a lot more touchbacks. And potentially I felt I could have had a lot more. But I need to get that back. And work on being more accurate with field goals."

The accuracy again comes down to timing and technique; distance off the short college tee is more a matter of strength. Just not, said Bell, from the source most imagine. "It's you're core and your technique. A lot of people think when you kick its all leg. But you have to have a pretty strong core to kick the ball far." And the build-up process is straight out of those mid-day TV ads for building a leaner, meaner middle. "We do medicine balls, ab workouts, all that stuff."

Touchbacks can be a touchy subject in the college game these days. Aggressive coaches with athletic coverage teams are willing to take their chances with returns, as long as the kicker can hang it high for the right time and around the goal line. In fact Mississippi State often preferred this approach against certain opponents. The outcome wasn't always as planned; Auburn and Tennessee scorched State for touchdowns in the process.

Yet on the whole kickoff coverage was solid in the second half of the season and no games were lost or even turned on big runbacks. Still, Bell likes to play it safe and send the ball into the end zone often as possible…which brings up another adjustment this college kicker made from high school. "I actually had to cover on kickoffs this year. So, that was the big difference!"

"And those were just kickoffs that didn't go in the end zone so I had to make a play. But they can take it out whenever they want to, so I have to get down the field and cover. That was a big adjustment." Not that Bell is little at a listed 6-2, 185 or so, though instead of saying he's not small he'd prefer it be he is tall. He's also quick on his feet as a fine high school record playing third base reminds.

But actual tackling? Forget technique, or even practice. "I've never worked on tackling in my life! Just go down there and try to hit them, I guess." And indeed Bell did on a few occasions.

"On the Alabama opening kickoff I pushed the guy out of bounds. In the Ole Miss game I made the tackle on the opening kickoff. And LSU, I had a hand on a guy!" By the same token, "I've embarrassed myself twice this year. Auburn and LSU." Ahhh, well, he wasn't signed to make stops anyway.

Kicking is his career and Bell is off to a fine start at it. One interesting aspect to campus bowl preparations was that walk-ons were given chances to placekick while Bell went to another unit for a post-season change. "Last week I got a lot of reps in for punting. That's something I enjoyed because I haven't got a lot of one-reps in all year." It needs noting that in high school Bell boomed the ball for a claimed typical hang time of 4.6-plus seconds with consistent distance. So this wasn't new at all to the youngest member of the kicking corps.

"It was good to get some punts in. I felt like I did OK, nothing spectacular but average." Starting punter Baker Swedenburg was there to offer advice, though the junior passed up his chance to have some fun and cross up his cohort. "Nah, not at all."

Both specialists are back in 2013 as is snapper Winston Chapman. But a new piece in the placekick team must be found as holder Chris Cameron graduates. ‘I've no idea who," Bell said. "Michael Mordecai has been working and he's gotten pretty good. Hopefully he can come through."

Also hopefully, Bell can take care of that placekicker-points record very early on New Years Day, then keep putting up more points after Bulldog touchdowns. That would be a fine way to cap one winning year and kick-start, so to speak, 2013.

"It's been a good season, and we had a good week of prep for the bowl game," Bell said. "We're excited get down there and play."

The Bulldogs report to Jacksonville today to begin their on-site work for the New Years Day matchup with Northwestern (noon local, 11:00am central).

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