When the Huskers recruited Kenny Bell out of Fairview High in Boulder in 2010, I yawned. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Bell would be the player who brought some much-needed physical and mental toughness to Nebraska football.
Bell was a skinny kid with an Afro who just might run fast enough to avoid getting broken in half if he ever saw the field in Lincoln. Or so I thought.
At 6-foot-2, and 175 pounds, he did not seem to be the prototype physical pass catcher. Yet the 'Fro has grown at Nebraska. After three years in the Husker program, he's only up to 185, but from the very beginning, there's been room for him on the football field. Bell has dished out a lot more punishment than he's absorbed. And if just a little bit of Kenny Bell rubs off on the young Husker defense, there is room for optimism in Husker Nation.
Courtesy of Huskers.com
Pound for pound, Bell is the toughest Cornhusker, both physically and mentally. I'm not talking about last year's Big Ten Championship, where he clocked Wisconsin's Devin Smith in what has become a YouTube classic. I'm talking about the way he puts himself on the line covering punts, where he's proven to be one of the surest tacklers on the team. Or the way he makes catches in traffic, and fights for yards after the catch. It's the way he grinds it out on every play, making a downfield block or sprinting downfield as a gunner, when he could rest on his reputation as a sure-handed pass receiver.
Early in his junior season, Bell will become one of the top five Huskers in career pass receptions and receiving yards. He had only three catches for 45 yards Saturday night against Southern Mississippi, nothing special as far as statistics go. But I think his example is at least part of the reason the Huskers had 12 tackles for loss – most of them made by Huskers who are just starting to learn what major college football is all about. The skinny kid exudes tough-minded confidence on the field and on the sidelines.
And his juggling 21-yard touchdown catch just seconds before halftime was a knife in the gut to Southern Miss. A week after Nebraska let Wyoming hang around, Kenny Bell put the Huskers up 35-6 at the half, showing everyone how to take an opponent right out of the game.
When NU came out lethargic at the start of the third quarter, going three-and-out and giving up a quick touchdown to the Golden Eagles, Bell restarted the Huskers, returning the kickoff 63 yards. One play later, Ameer Abdullah sprinted 37 yards for a touchdown, and the rout was on.
Bell doesn't let up, and the Huskers need to learn from his example. They showed enough improvement against Southern Miss to give Nebraska fans reason to think they'll be ready to stay with a high-scoring UCLA team next weekend.
Maybe the best news from the Southern Miss game was this: in winning its 10th consecutive home game, Nebraska finally broke its streak of games with two or more turnovers. Or maybe it was that the defense made a few explosive plays, intercepting four passes, including a pair of pick-sixes by Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. It was the Huskers' most interceptions since picking off five against Idaho in 2010. It was the first time Nebraska was plus-three in turnovers in nearly three years (Colorado 2010).
Turnover margin will be a huge stat next week when UCLA comes to Memorial Stadium for an 11 a.m. start. So will rushing defense. It will be Nebraska's first real test of the season; will the Huskers ring true?
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org