Vonn Bell looked like a finished product the first time he stepped on the field for Ridgeland High in the northwest corner of Georgia.
At least to the untrained eye. Bell, a junior transfer from the Chattanooga area, racked up somewhere between 10 and 15 tackles, picked off a pass, even scooped up a fumble and raced for a score that gave Ridgeland a chance in a 17-14 loss to Adairsville.
Bell seemed like the bright, breakout star on a disappointing night for the Panthers.
Imagine the young safety’s shock when found out a day or two later that he’d graded out at a 38 for the game.
“I’ve been coaching for 32 years, and he was one of the best athletes I’d ever seen, but he wasn’t a great football player when he walked on campus,” former Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said. “There were so many little things he was doing wrong.”
Bell sat down to watch the film in shock. The numbers didn’t seem to match.
Then the Ridgeland coaches showed Bell the mistakes he’d made: Bad angles, letting his eyes drift to the wrong part of the field, blown coverages that Bell had made look good by using his freakish physical gifts to recover. Bell, only a junior at the time, took the criticism in stride.
“I tell you that story,” Mariakis said, “because from that day on, he was a sponge.”
‘He soaked it all up’
Three years later, Chris Ash arrived at Ohio State to take over as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach from Everett Withers.
Ash knew he had plenty of talent at his disposal. Besides a future draft pick in senior Christian Bryant, Ash was taking over a group that included Bell, who’d been the No. 2 safety recruit in the 2013 class — the year before Ash’s arrival — and gifted teammate Tyvis Powell.
He’d also been told Bell, like a lot of college freshmen, needed to grow up a little to reach his potential.
“I was told a lot about Vonn; his first year there, he was immature,” Ash, now the head coach at Rutgers, said. “He was a highly recruited kid that thought he’d figured out the game of football and didn’t really need anybody else.”
But Ash also liked Bell’s smiling, infectious personality. Whatever issues he had to overcome seemed like the natural maturing most freshmen in college have to do.
“I quickly found out that once you get a relationship with the kid and start coaching him hard and really giving him some discipline on the field, he soaked it all up,” Ash said. “He worked himself into the type of player he is right now.”
Alll about following directions
Bell’s parents made sure he grew up with a chance to pursue anything he wanted in the world of sports. His father, Vencent, played football at Murray State for Frank Beamer in the ’80s, then took a job working with the YMCA, an organization that made it easy for Bell’s mother, Vanessa, to give her son a chance at any and every sport he wanted to play.
“Soccer, swimming, basketball, flag football, I did it all,” Bell said. “My mom just kept me in everything since my dad worked for the YMCA, and there was just sports all around. ... She kept me active.”
Bell had an early love of swimming, and basketball still holds a special place in his heart.
Football fit him best, and by the time he was a sophomore at Chattanooga Central, it was obvious that he had a chance to be a big-time player. His mother taught at Ridgeland, a 40-minute drive from the family’s home in Ooltewah, Tennessee, and her status as a teacher allowed Bell to transfer to the school in Georgia, a state that instantly raised the level of competition Bell was facing and offered a higher profile to recruiters.
By the time his first season at Ridgeland ended, recruiters were swarming around the Bell household.
But his parents kept the attention from getting out of control.
“That family needs to write a book on how to handle the recruiting circus,” Mariakis said. “His mom and his dad were in total control of that process.”
When Bell cut his initial list down to 20, the family sent out an email to every coach asking for a typed reply in answers to roughly seven or eight questions, and the Bells explicitly instructed the coaches to reply by email so Bell could have a hard copy.
Three responded with a phone call.
“These are high-profile coaches; I won’t mention their names, but you’d know them,” Mariakis said. “(The Bells told them) we appreciate your time, but we’ve no longer got you on the list of coaches that Vonn’s considering. They said why not? ‘If you can’t follow directions, how can I trust you with my son?’ ”
Bell, in a hotly contested recruiting process, whittled the list down to Alabama, Tennessee and Ohio State, then chose the Buckeyes in a televised spot on ESPN on signing day with all three hats on the table.
What ESPN didn’t know was that one of those schools had already been eliminated a week earlier. Another coach hadn’t followed directions.
‘You can’t coach those things’
Bell’s physical gifts were more than worthy of all the attention he earned in the recruiting process. Plenty of talented players find themselves stuck on the sideline in order to mature. The remarkable thing about Bell’s slow starts at Ridgeland and Ohio State is that he was capable of contributing through the growing pains.
“By the time his junior year ended, he was a coach on the field,” Mariakis said. “He was so hungry to learn.”
Bell opened his Ohio State career as a nickel covering in the slot, and although he had trouble with Sammy Watkins in Ohio State’s 40-35 loss to Clemson in the 2014 Orange Bowl, he also came away with seven tackles and the first interception of his career.
Under Ash’s tutelage, Bell became an All-American, the physical, energizing heart of a defense that dominated the NFL draft at the end of April.
“Pound-for-pound, the toughest player we had at Ohio State on the defense, and that includes Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, all those guys,” Ash said.
Bell, who made 92 tackles, broke up 12 passes and picked off six more in 2014, also proved he had a knack for coming up big when his team needed him most. Facing off against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the Buckeyes found themselves clinging to a 34-28 lead in the fourth quarter when Alabama forced a three-and-out deep in Ohio State territory, and the Buckeyes’ punt traveled just 21 yards, setting the Crimson Tide up at Ohio State’s 23.
“We were kind of reeling a little bit,” Ash said.
Alabama tried to take advantage by taking a shot to the end zone. Bell lined up on the right side of the field, and for a second it looked like Alabama’s Blake Sims had O.J. Howard wide open for a touchdown.
Then Bell came out of nowhere, ranging all the way across the field to pick off Sims and hand Ohio State the momentum it badly needed.
“His closing speed and ability to make plays is as good as anyone.” Ash said. “You watch him on kickoff coverage, he never gets blocked, he just has a way of getting through, getting lost and finding the football. You can’t coach those things.”
Soaking up knowledge again
Now Bell finds himself as the newcomer again. Drafted in the second round by the Saints, Bell joins a secondary full of veteran players like Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd, the two safeties he’s expected to work behind as a rookie.
The lessons he learned starting out at Ridgeland and Ohio State are fresh in his mind.
“It was a different speed, different atmosphere, so it was just going in there, watching your film, learning your job, responsibility, the formations, ins and outs of everything,” Bell said. “That’s what you’ve got to do here, too. You can play football, they already know you can, but you have to execute at a high level.”
New Orleans is hoping Bell can make the transition quickly.
Bell’s skills as a ballhawk could allow New Orleans to get creative in sub-packages, playing him over the top with Byrd or in the slot as a versatile nickel, not to mention as a gunner on special teams, a spot Ash said the coaches at Ohio State could never keep Bell from playing.
“He’s got a nice athletic skill set for the safety positon. He has had a knack for being able to get his hands on the football,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “When you get a chance to add some guys from a championship program, guys that understand what it takes to win, I think that helps your football team.”
Bell is no longer the freshman at Ohio State trying to go his own way.
Three weeks into his time in New Orleans, Bell is focused on soaking up everything he can, particularly from players like Vaccaro, Byrd, Keenan Lewis and Delvin Breaux, the kind of veterans who can help him live up to his billing as a second-round pick.
“All the DBs here, especially if you’ve got years under your belt, I’m going to ask you questions,” Bell said. “I’m going to ask the coaches questions, just keep on challenging their brains every day. Me being a young guy, just be willing and open to be quiet, listen and watch those guys every day, and follow their lead.”
History shows it won’t be long before Bell starts to get up to speed.