The number eleven is a big one in Linebacker U lore - up there with 31 (Shane Conlan, Paul Posluszny) - with greats like LaVar Arrington and NaVorro Bowman wearing that number. Brandon Bell started off at number 26, and changed to the hyped number in the spring prior to his junior season - and not without fanfare or questions. And though he was questionably left off even this year’s All-Big Ten list, Bell has made a great impact and lived up to the number.
Bell committed to Penn State just weeks prior to the announcement of the NCAA sanctions, and stuck with the Lions through thick and thin. One of the players from what coach James Franklin may call greater PA, Bell played high school ball at Oakcrest in Mays Landing, NJ, and was a three-star recruit that picked PSU over offers from schools like Northwestern, Maryland, Syracuse, WVU and BTPR. He played middle linebacker in high school, which led some (read: this writer) to continually call for his shifting to the middle in college - but this is why I’m not paid the big bucks in the college coaching ranks, because Bell succeeded on the outside.
He was hyped before he got to play for Penn State in a real game, and saw time on the field immediately his first season, starting one game and playing in ten. Bell was named to the BTN.com all-freshman team after logging 24 tackles (14 solo) with one interception. His sophomore year he continued that trend, starting ten games (and seeing time in eleven), notching 47 tackles (23 solo) and 2 sacks - but it was that year that saw him lose time for injury the first time.
It was Bell’s junior year that saw him really take charge. Despite missing two games, he still finished 4th on the team in tackles with 66 (37 solo), and third on the team with 12.5 tackles for loss - and 5.5 sacks. Bell was a force off the edge and in blitz packages, and also forced 3 fumbles on the season. He made many a remarkable play, like this:
And perhaps most importantly of all, his leadership on the field was unquantifiable. He was on the sidelines hyping up his teammates, and the difference in the defense’s intensity was obvious when Bell was on the field.
That vast difference was never more apparent than in 2016, when Bell missed four full games (Temple, Michigan, Minnesota, and Maryland) and part of the Pitt game due to another injury - and then came back en force for the team’s upset of then-#2 Ohio State. Bell’s iconic performance in that game, which caused him to be named our MVP for the week as well as the conference’s defensive player of the week, wasn’t even supposed to happen - he was originally supposed to play only 25 to 30 snaps, but was so hot he played 69 and led the team in tackles (18), alongside one sack and one PBU.
Despite losing four plus games this year, Bell still finished the year 2nd on the team in tackles with 88 (40 solo), and had 7.5 tackles for loss (4 sacks), three forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions, the latter two stats of which he tied for first on the squad. To put that in perspective, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Jabrill Peppers played in two more games, and had 17 fewer tackles - and one fewer interception.
Bell also had a knack for making big plays at just the right time, like in the Rose Bowl against USC:
This play, and the ensuing rest of the game, proved just how important Bell was to this team this past season - the linebacker again had to leave due to injury, and missed the rest of the game. The result? The defense allowed the Trojans to creep back into the game, and ultimately win. That’s the mark of an MVP - they’re irreplaceable, and the team doesn’t play the same without them.
That’s what Brandon Bell was to this team, and he will be missed in 2017.