Playing opposite Scott Starks, junior cornerback Brett Bell is bound to receive quite a bit of attention from Wisconsin's opponents. This week, however, he may receive more respect.
After a brilliant performance last week, when Bell rebounded from allowing a 49-yard completion to enjoy one of the best games of his career, the Wheaton, Ill., native will face his old high school teammate in Illini quarterback Jon Beutjer.
"He is a great athlete, great player," Beutjer said of Bell. "I actually saw him a couple times this summer and he was talking trash about the game. He was really excited to play against me."
Bell earned a starting spot at Wisconsin last fall and played well but he injured his shoulder prior to last season's Illinois game and took a medical redshirt. It was just the latest in Bell's tribulations in Madison. On the field he had struggled after being moved from corner to free safety as a young player. Off the field he is on probation stemming from two fights and he spent a night in jail during fall camp for an alleged probation violation.
"I wouldn't really consider it a second chance I just consider it adversity," Bell said. "As a freshman you come in, coach teaches about adversity. You know it is going to come with school, with off the field, with on the field, and being able to overcome adversity is something I learned fast. In a way I'm kind of happy a lot of stuff happened to me. I grew up from it."
"He's been through a lot of adversity since he's been here but he's been able to overcome adversity and just keep striving to become a great player," Starks said. "It's an overall game that's improved. His hands have improved. He's tackling a lot better, attacking the ball a lot better and his man coverage has improved drastically."
Beutjer has also overcome his fair share of college football adversity. After a well-publicized falling out with Iowa's coaching staff, one of the most prolific passers in high school history anywhere transferred to Illinois. He averaged 306 yards passing and threw 19 touchdowns in seven starts for the Illini two years ago, finishing second in the Big Ten in touchdown passes (21) and first in passing yardage (228.3 per game).
He threw for 1,597 yards in seven games last year before a back injury cut short his season. The NCAA, though, granted him a sixth year of eligibility. It is an opportunity he is taking full advantage of, having thrown for 589 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions, in essentially just two games. Beutjer left Illinois' rout of Florida A&M in the third quarter and he missed the second half of the UCLA game and all of the Western Michigan game due to a rib injury.
"When he was granted a sixth year I told him that was great and we were happy to have him back and look forward to him coming in and competing but the job wasn't his," Illinois coach Ron Turner said. "He had to come out and earn it. And he did that. I like the way he approached everything. I like the way he has been playing. He's prepared very hard it the offseason, worked hard physically and mentally in the offseason. I definitely see a change and see a tremendous determination in Jon to come out and play well and help his team win."
"He's had a rough road, I've had a rough road. I kind of look at what he's gone through and you can tell by the way he's playing now that he's just ready to get everything behind him so he can play the game," Bell said.
Beutjer, who will soon eclipse 5,000 career passing yards in his Illinois career, has enjoyed success against Wisconsin but has also been susceptible to some mistakes. He threw for 319 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-20 Illini win in Madison two years ago but also was picked off three times. In Wisconsin's 38-20 win last year in Champaign, Beutjer threw for 207 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The four-touchdown performance was nothing compared to what Bell witnessed at Warrenville South High School. When Beutjer was a senior—Bell's sophomore year—he set a national record by throwing 60—yes, 60—touchdown passes in just 14 games.
"I know how he is, how much of a leader he is and how well he plays the game. How smart he is, how he does his reads and his arm is extremely strong," Bell said.
Bell and Beutjer have caught up over the years when they have been back in Wheaton.
"I'm excited to play against him as well," Beutjer said. "It will be a fun experience and we are excited for the challenge."
Bell was challenged often last week against Penn State. But after yielding a 49-yard reception by Michael Robinson, Bell came back one play later and intercepted Nittany Lion quarterback Zack Mills. Bell finished the game with six tackles and now has 16 this season.
"He's up for the challenge definitely because he's the new guy over there," Starks said. "He didn't play last year so why wouldn't teams at least try to attack the new guy? They are going to be sadly mistaken trying to pick on Bret. You seen what happened last week. Brett has some great technique. He's big and physical and he's going to make plays."
"If they keep coming at me," Bell said, "the more I like it."
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