At times during Jamal Bell’s first season at UL, it didn’t appear he was having much fun.
“Last year, he was a guy I probably rode a lot throughout the week and on game day,” UL coach Billy Napier said.
Bell, a junior wide receiver, himself acknowledges he wasn’t putting his best foot forward last season as he adjusted to Division I after one season at Tyler Junior College.
He’s 6-foot-5 with enough speed and he's entering his fourth year in the program.
“My body language was bad,” Bell said as he described the obstacles to playing time last fall. “I was lazy a lot. I just gave off the vibe that I didn’t care or didn’t want to be here.”
But all of that changed for Bell once he made up his mind in January.
Now the Brownsboro, Texas, native has gone from regularly drawing Napier’s ire to being praised and earning a Week 1 start at receiver for the Cajuns in Saturday’s 11 a.m. opener against Mississippi State in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“But after coach (Napier) just kept getting on me and (wide receivers) coach (Tim) Leger got on me too, come January it just started to click,” Bell said. “I was like, ‘I need to be better than I was last year.’
“At that point, I talked to myself and I’m a better person than I was last year when I first got here. That’s when I really realized that.”
From the spring season through August, Napier noticed the turnaround in Bell’s approach and play on the field.
In Billy Napier’s first season calling plays at UL, his offense made progress.
“He is one of the players on our team that’s made the most improvement,” Bell said. “There were times last year when I didn’t trust him necessarily to put him out there and play. But he was a rookie and had just joined our team in the middle of the summer.
“He’s one of the players on our team that’s made the most progress. He’s matured. He’s a better practice player. He’s a better competitor. He’s tough mentally.”
The 6-foot, 193-pounder only finished with six receptions for 38 yards and one score last season.
But he hadn’t enrolled until Aug. 8 as a blueshirt (preferred walk-on) from Tyler JC, where he caught 30 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman.
His athleticism, though, gave him a chance. Bell played quarterback his senior season in high school and even was the MVP of an All-Star basketball game in his prep days.
“He’s a great athlete, but a guy that the program he played in didn’t have scholarship opportunities,” Napier said. “So he went to a junior college. He went the old-school route and had to earn it. He’s a guy I’m really proud of, and I’m excited to watch him play.”
Besides his lack of attention to detail, the biggest thing that kept Bell off the field last season was fumbling.
He knew that, so he worked on ball security.
A position-by-position look at where the Cajuns stack up as the season gets underway.
“Each and every day, it was my main goal,” Bell said. “Every time I got the ball, it was in my head — protect the ball, don’t fumble — or don’t swing it, just keep it on your chest at all times … even when the defender’s coming, just put two hands on the ball.”
Once reality set in, apparently a total transformation took place.
“I like pay attention to more things than I did last year,” Bell said. “The little things that I didn’t do last year, I do them now.”
That first became evident in the spring game when Bell had four receptions for 50 yards.
The productive offseason led to Bell going from a question mark to a leader as August camp began.
As the 2018 football season unfolded, UL fans learned a great deal about the offensive play-calling side of new coach Billy Napier.
“At the beginning of camp, I’d talk to myself and I’d talk to my teammates and all the rest of the wideouts in the room and I was like, ‘Let’s have a good fall camp and let’s push it to the limit each and every day to make sure we get the best out of what we’re doing here so we can play fast and play efficiently on the field,’ ” Bell said.
And Bell delivered.
“Calif Gossett also has put together a good couple of days here and he’ll play, but Jamal’s earned the right to run out there first (Saturday),” Napier said.