The way Penn State middle linebacker Jason Cabinda tells it, strongside ’backer Brandon Bell is “a guy who likes to have fun out there.”
“He’s flying around,” Cabinda said after last Saturday’s 28-3 victory over Rutgers. “Music’s playing, he’s dancing.”
And not coincidentally, the entire defense seemed to find its rhythm.
Bell, who missed most of the second half of the opener against Temple and all of the Buffalo game with what is believed to be an ankle injury, contributed nine tackles as the Lions limited the Scarlet Knights to 294 yards (43 on the ground) and held them without a touchdown.
“The energy that he gives off to the rest of the defense,” Cabinda said, “is infectious.”
Bell, a 6-foot-1, 224-pound junior, is far and away the most experienced of the Nittany Lions’ healthy linebackers, having started last year and played a good bit the year before. And while he said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning that he is “more of a reserved person off the field,” that’s far from the case following kickoff.
“When I step on that field, it’s different, come game day, no matter where we are,” he said. “I let everything out.”
His histrionics are not always appreciated, he admitted.
“I’m not sure if I get under people’s skin (from opposing teams),” he said, “but it does seem like I play with an edge, play with a chip on (my) shoulder. And that brings a little more fire to our defense and myself. Actually the ref told me to calm down at the beginning of the game (on Saturday).”
Better that he should try to stop a tidal wave. And the other Lions were only too happy to ride the crest (and hope to continue to do so Saturday, when PSU hosts San Diego State).
“I don’t know anybody I went against that had that type of fire, talking like that – or is like Brandon Bell,” said safety Marcus Allen, who echoed Cabinda in saying that Bell’s approach is “contagious.”
Because of that, Allen said, “It’s just a whole different team from last year, I believe.”
Coach James Franklin said during his news conference Tuesday that he doesn’t mind excess emotion — that while he surely doesn’t want to see any of his players become so unhinged that they draw a penalty or embarrass themselves, the game demands passion.
“So,” he said, “I'm all for it. I want us to play even more like that. I'd like to see more of our team.”
Bell is also enthused about the way Cabinda has evolved since moving from the weak side to the middle to replace the injured Nyeem Wartman-White, and as well as the development of Troy Reeder in Cabinda’s old spot. Like Cabinda, Reeder is in his second year in the program, and a full-time starter for the first time.
“I love playing next to both of those guys,” Bell said. “They bring high energy and they’re running around. That’s the way I like to play, so it works out just fine.”
Where the Nittany Lions are concerned, things have worked out as well as could possibly be imagined after losing a player as important as Wartman-White to a knee injury. All three of the linebackers can run. All three appear to be quick studies.
And all three have Wartman-White on hand as a resource.
“He’s in every meeting, helping out Troy and Jason, being that he played both Mike and Will (i.e., the middle and the weak side, respectively) the last two years,” Bell said. “He’s still a very vocal guy. Anybody can talk to him. He helps anybody out with anything, really.”
Bell appeared in 10 games, with one start, as a freshman, then made 47 tackles as a season-long starter last fall. The New Jersey native also had an interception against Rutgers, his homestate school.
He said playing so much his first season helped him “tremendously,” and at this point in his career he is definitely “way more comfortable” and “way more confident.”
The latter, he added, “comes from working in the offseason — getting your body right, knowing the playbook.”
So now he is reacting, not thinking.
“Second year in the system, I know my role, I know my responsibilities, my assignments,” he said, “so come Saturdays I try to fly around and play fast.”
Which seems to inspire everyone else to do the same.