The first time I noticed Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, he was galloping 75 yards against Western Michigan on just his fifth collegiate carry back in 2010. He ended up rushing for 141 yards and two touchdowns in that season opener and I made a mental note at the time to keep an eye on this guy going forward.
Two years later, Bell is once again an opening weekend star after rushing for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries in a 17-13 win over Boise State last Friday. He also caught six passes for 55 yards, which means he touched the ball 50 times. You don't see that very often in this day and age.
Since that performance, there's been considerable buzz surrounding Bell. He was named our Heisman Player of the Week on Monday and on Tuesday he debuted in third place on the Heismanpundit/CBSSports.com Heisman Straw Poll, jumping over fellow Big Ten running back and 2011 Heisman finalist Montee Ball of Wisconsin.
One of the things I like about the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder's style is that he's not just a plodder grinding away out there with his head down. He has the speed to break away from defenders in the open field and the athleticism to make people miss. The junior battering ram led the Spartans last season with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns and, because of the departure of backfield mate Edwin Baker to the NFL, I tabbed him as a player who could be in store for vastly-increased production in 2012. If his game against Boise State is any indication, he may be well on his way to doubling those junior-year numbers.
Not that he's caught up in the hype. We talked with Bell on the phone after practice on Tuesday for a brief Q & A and he was as humble as they come:
How has your life changed since your big breakout game against Boise State?
I've been getting more attention from the local press, but nothing has really changed. I'm just glad we came away with the win and now we can get back to practice and work on getting ready for Central Michigan.
What do you think of the attention you've been getting as far as the Heisman Trophy race goes?
I really don't think about that too much. I'm thinking about the Big Ten Trophy and getting to the Rose Bowl. I think if I can do what I can to help my team win, all that other stuff is going to take care of itself.
How prepared were you to carry the load against the Broncos? Did Coach Mark Dantonio let you know ahead of time that he might put the team on your shoulders?
They told me going in that I was going to get the ball a lot. I expected something like 25 or 30 carries. I didn't think it would be 50 touches. But I'm thankful I had the proper conditioning to carry that load. I don't care how many times I have to carry it. I'll do whatever it takes to win.
You had never carried the ball more than 20 times in your career before getting 44 against Boise State. How does your body feel now?
I'm a little sore, I guess. But I woke up on Saturday feeling pretty much as good as always. I just made sure I got in the cold tub a few times since and now I feel like I'm ready to go again.
One of the highlights of last Friday night was your hurdling of Boise State safety Jeremy Ioane. That was pretty impressive for a big guy such as yourself. Tell me about your track background in high school.
I ran the 100 and 200 meters and I also high jumped. My best high jump mark was 6-foot-8. I didn't really have proper form, I just used my athletic ability the best I could to get over the bar.
You grew up in Columbus, but you ended up in East Lansing. Were you a Buckeyes fan when you were younger?
I didn't really grow up an OSU fan. My family was split between
So what attracted you to Michigan State?
The people here are great. Coach Dantonio made me feel comfortable. There are a lot of guys here who are from Columbus. I like that it's away from home, but not too far. Mom can still come and see me play very easily. And they run my kind of offense, one that features the power run game.
Were you always a big power back?
Pretty much. I weighed 218 when I got here and the other day I weighed in at 237. I've put on about 25 pounds or so. I didn't really lift weights in high school, but now we do it almost every day in the offseason so I've been able to add some good size.
What running backs did you look up to during your formative years?
When I was really young, I liked Curtis Martin when he was with the Jets. But in high school the guy I really liked to watch was Beanie Wells. I used to love watching him and how he used the stiff arm. I think we're similar type backs, both big guys who can move.
The NFL nowadays is all about specialization when it comes to running backs. Do you worry that they'll see all these carries as a negative?
Not really. I don't really have a goal for how I want to be used. I'll just do whatever it takes to win. I'll do what I have to do. If they want me to carry the ball 15 times or 25 times or 40 times, or return punts or kicks, I'll do it.
What about your personal goals for this season? Have they changed at all since you started out with such a huge game?
My personal goal was to be in the best shape and best condition possible heading into the season. I felt that if I did that, everything would fall into place. So nothing has changed.