Brett Bell did not look comfortable last season. He often seemed lost in space at free safety—open field tackling was an adventure and Bell's pass coverage was shaky at best.
His career was at a crucial point last spring when the Badgers converted the former prep All-American back to corner, where he starred at Warrenville South High School in Wheaton, Ill.
Levonne Rowan entered spring workouts as the most likely candidate to replace B.J. Tucker at right corner. Bell, though, supplanted Rowan during the spring and has not looked back. Rowan was expected to challenge Bell this fall but the competition, if there was one to begin with, has not even been close. Bell has had a very good fall camp, especially as of late, and has solidified himself within a talented, veteran secondary.
"I think he is starting to feel really good about the cornerback position," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "We still have some little things to work on but that is not at all bad."
Bell's comfort level has obviously gone up throughout camp, and deservedly so. Bell is a big, fast, physical corner who has all of the tools. It has just been a matter of putting those tools to work. This fall, Bell has shown steady improvement and has recently turned his play to a higher gear, staying with the Badgers best receivers and doing an admirable job in all aspects of the position.
"The last time I played corner was in high school so everything feels new," Bell said. "There is a whole new scheme; there is a lot more you need to know."
Heading into camp right cornerback was certainly the question mark in the secondary, and probably the entire defense, that most needed to be answered. With Scott Starks entering his third year as the starter on the left side it went without saying that Bell would be tested this fall and this season.
Early in camp Bell held up reasonably well. The comfort level appeared to be steadily rising. He was making plays, but inconsistently and the Badgers best receivers were more often than not getting an edge against Bell.
Bell's steady progress, however, suddenly catapulted this week. Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez removed a complete practice from the docket on Sunday, though the team did do some special teams work sans pads as well as the customary film and classroom football work.
The schedule change seemed to do wonders for the jump in the legs of a number of players, especially Bell.
"I think the game kind of just upped a level because we had the day off (Sunday)," Bell said. "I think all of our legs felt a lot better (Monday) and that had a lot to do with it."
Bell certainly showed renewed life. Over the course of two hours or more of practice, a corner will give up his fair share of catches. But what is impressive is how often Bell runs stride-for-stride with a receiver, moving with him all over the field.
"I will tell you the main thing that he has done is that he has shown some mental toughness," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "I have left him in there a couple of times longer than he should (be in) to see how he handles things. I left him in there when we are in the situation where we have one cornerback in to cover the one wide receiver to see what his temperament would be like. He has been competing."
And competing well. In the red zone drills Lee spoke off Bell was particularly menacing, blanketing receivers play after play.
There is still work to be done, though. As Lee alluded to, and Bell readily admits, there is plenty of room to grow. Bell's coverage skills are nearly in tip-top shape at this point in practice, but he still has a hard time making plays on the ball. He gets in position and breaks on the pass just fine, but it is finishing, as in picking it off, where Bell still struggles.
"I have to work on every aspect of corner—I can always get better," Bell said. "Breaking on the ball, turning and running, playing the ball in the air. I would say that playing the ball in the air is probably the biggest thing."
But also as Lee said, this is a small item in the grand scheme of things. Brett Bell has been turning well in coverage. He has filled well versus the run and he is doing an exceptional job of late keeping up with receivers and at least knocking the ball away. The right corner position looks to be in good hands and there is still time for Bell's comfort level to go up further, bringing his production along with it.
Still, Bell is untested in games. He hasn't taken the field at corner and been asked to make player after play with the pressure on. With established players like Starks, Jim Leonhard and Ryan Aiello patrolling the secondary, plenty of passes are going to be directed Bell's way.
"Like I told him, he is covering all of our wide receivers," Lee said. "If he can cover them on a daily basis he can cover anyone in the country. Teams may come his way, but I think he is up to the challenge.
"This has been the best thing for him. When we go one-on-one he is going against the best. On each phase of the game (there) is not a drop off when you go one against one. Those are your best players and we have some very talented wide receivers. He has been holding his own."