Good morning from Cheese Country. I just can’t spend a weekend in Wisconsin and come home without a Cheesehead, can I?
Anyway…. Something to watch for during today’s Penn State season finale? How about Brandon Bell? Bell joined the far-more-ballyhooed Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman as true freshmen who played the majority of at least one game’s snaps on offense or defense when he got significant playing time at linebacker last week against Nebraska.
Bell, a 6-1, 226-pound native of New Jersey, had a career-high six tackles against the Cornhuskers. More importantly, he seemed to pass the “eye test” – and not only with media hacks like me. Players and coach Bill O’Brien also sang his praises. And, although this is just a “feel” I get, they seem to be doing it genuinely. Rarely, if ever, does a player answer a question about a teammate without praise. But when teammates and O’Brien talked about Bell in the hours and days following the Nebraska game, they did so in detail – and effusively.
Here is a sample:
O’Brien: “Brandon played a really good football game. He had been playing well on special teams, so we decided to get him more run at linebacker. He really played well. He had a really good tackle near the goal line on the quarterback. At the end of the game when they fumbled the shotgun snap, he almost recovered that – he instinctively took off and went after it and almost got that one, which would have been a huge play, obviously. And there were many plays throughout the game. He does a good job of understanding blocking schemes at a young age. He’s an instinctive player and does a good job.”
Junior linebacker Mike Hull: “I think he’s one of the most improved players on the team especially defensively. Since he’s gotten here he’s just made a lot of strides and he’s made a lot of big plays for us in the past couple weeks, and we needed it. So everyone’s pretty pleased with the way he’s coming along.”
Senior linebacker Glenn Carson: “It’s tough because there’s a lot on your plate (as a freshman) and there is a lot to learn. He’s a smart kid and is really football-savvy. He was able to step up and you saw that he made some really good plays (during last week’s game).”
Senior linebacker/safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: “What I saw from him (against Nebraska) was what I saw for him all season – when he’s been given opportunities, he’s shown up. Bell is a smart guy; people don’t see it but he definitely knows what he’s doing, so that definitely helps as an advantage. Even though he’s a freshman and smaller than the rest of the linebackers, he uses the mental aspect of the game to help him out. That’s the good thing about Bell – and he’s only going to get better as time progresses.”
Sophomore cornerback Jordan Lucas: “I think for a young guy, he’s doing a terrific job. In practice he comes out with energy and makes plays. One thing coach tells us is, ‘Go get the ball… Go get the ball during practice.’ He always does that; he’s always at the ball, always at the point of attack. And he’s physical. As a young guy, he’s improved so much. I’m just anxious to see how much more improvement he makes in the offseason and when he comes in competing for a starting job.”
Pretty effusive and detailed praise from his teammates, no? And with buzzwords you love to hear repeated: “Instinctive.” “Smart.” “Around the ball.” Makes plays.” “Improving.” Not just your garden-variety, “He looked good out there… He’s a good player”-type of gibberish.
Building off what Lucas said, you’d have to think that Bell is a frontrunner to earn one of the two starting linebacker spots that are available heading into next season. Hull, if he remains healthy, potentially will be the leader and marquee member of the 2014 linebacking corps, as I wrote about earlier this week.
But after him, it’s a big question mark. Nyeen Wartman has been so-so as a redshirt freshman starting on the opposite side of Hull. For my money, Bell appears to be miles ahead in terms of instinctiveness. Wartman has, though, been part of the program for an extra 12 months.
Current redshirt sophomore Ben Kline, who battled injury much of this season, probably will be a default starter heading into spring practice. Other candidates to start at linebacker include current redshirt freshmen Gary Wooten and Adam Cole, although it would seem each has slipped in terms of their standing with the coaching staff as the season has progressed. Incoming freshman Troy Reeder is a darkhorse.
Bell was a fairly highly-regarded recruit (3 stars by Rivals), and his pedigree showed in earning a significant amount of playing time already, even as a freshman who enrolled in the summer.
At “Linebacker U,” there is plenty of uncertainty at the school’s marquee position heading into next season. Bell seemingly made a strong “first” impression (at least a first impression in terms of having a large quantity of snaps in which to form a sample size). Penn State fans would seemingly go into 2014 feeling markedly more comfortable about the future of their linebackers corps should Bell have another strong performance against Wisconsin today. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the main storylines worth watching today.
Enjoy the game – at least, if that’s possible, judging by what those who are paid to predict these things predict will happen to the Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium today.