Penn State's Bell has 'outside' shot at starting linebacker spot

ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State's Brandon Bell (26) is hoping to wrap up a starting linebacker spot.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State's Brandon Bell (26) is hoping to wrap up a starting linebacker spot.
Posted: August 20, 2014

BRANDON BELL is still figuring out the category of linebacker into which he best fits. He could be suited for the strong side, but could also very well have a future on the weak side or even in the middle.

As of the start of Penn State's fall practices 2 weeks ago, that was still to be determined.

What's certain is that Bell, a true sophomore from Mays Landing, N.J., has a chance to start for the Nittany Lions this season on either side of middle linebacker and fifth-year senior Mike Hull. Bell, listed at 6-1 and 222 pounds, spent the spring with the first-team defense, playing "to the field," as the new coaching staff calls it, known more commonly as the strong side.

"He's a good athlete," PSU linebackers coach Brent Pry said. "I think his potential is tremendous, and it's how quickly we get him to reach it. That's kind of what he and I have talked about."

By the time the Aug. 30 season opener against Central Florida rolls around, Bell, 19, could realistically find himself at either outside linebacker spot. Junior Nyeem Wartman is considered the other front-runner to start next to Hull, while others competing for playing time on the outside include true freshman Jason Cabinda, junior Matt Baney and redshirt freshman Hunter Crafford.

With Penn State's experience and depth in the secondary trumping the numbers at linebacker, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has also mentioned the possibility of a 4-2-5 formation. It would include a position the staff labeled the "star" position, which basically amounts to a hybrid linebacker/defensive back who takes the place of a more-traditional outside linebacker.

Bell is one of only a few returning PSU linebackers with playing experience at the collegiate level. A consensus three-star recruit out of Oakcrest High School, he appeared in 10 of 12 games last year and started the season finale when the Nittany Lions upset Wisconsin in Madison. His hit on Badgers quarterback Joel Stave led to a key interception by defensive end C.J. Olaniyan in that game.

Also seeing time on special teams, Bell finished his debut season with 24 tackles, 14 of the solo variety, and a forced fumble.

"I was grateful for my opportunity," he said. "I would've liked to have done what I did at the end of the season more in the beginning. But I had to prove myself, which I felt as if I did. But I was grateful for my opportunity to play a little bit as much as I did."

Having experienced a full season as well as a set of spring practices, Bell felt more comfortable entering his second preseason training camp. He said he put on probably 4 or 5 pounds of muscle and thinks he and his teammates all got faster over the summer.

Bell also sounds like a fan of Shoop's defense. The first-year PSU coordinator recently described his system is an "in-your-face style of defense that's a lot of fun to play and it will be built on relentless pursuit of the football and never-ending pressure." Asked his thoughts on that, Bell responded with a smile, "That's the only way that you should play defense, honestly."

Pry, who came with Shoop and head coach James Franklin from Vanderbilt, said Bell is mature beyond his years, a trait that's "a real plus" when relying on a player at a young age.

"I think his potential is really good, and the challenge for him and I is to get it out of him," Pry said. "How quickly we can have him play at a high level, that's what we need and that's what we've talked about. Getting him to play at the level that is necessary for us to win with, not just be a guy."

Pry said Bell has a balanced repertoire, which is one reason the staff entered preseason practices still trying to discover the position at which he's best suited. Bell has been studying film of former Penn State outside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (San Francisco 49ers) and recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Derrick Brooks.

"It would be fantastic if Brandon could reach his potential, and if he could have a great camp and really grow into the position and be a guy come Central Florida that we feel really good about winning with," said Pry, speaking the day practices started. "He's not there yet. He needs to have a great camp. And he's capable."

On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

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