Before linebacker Brandon Bell broke through as a Penn State starter and team captain, the newly signed Cincinnati Bengals rookie wreaked havoc on football fields throughout southern New Jersey.
I remember those jarring hits and powerful runs vividly, patrolling the Oakcrest High School sideline as a fresh-out-of-college prep sports reporter for a weekly newspaper and ESPN Radio affiliate in Atlantic County, N.J.
Long before he joined Happy Valley’s “Linebacker U” legacy or put pen to paper on a professional contract, Bell was among a handful of prospects in the region known to even casual local sports fans.
However, the national recruiting spotlight didn’t necessarily shine bright across the area earlier this decade — before Rutgers and Maryland became Big Ten universities and expanded the conference’s reach further east.
Bell collected 117 tackles — 22 for loss — 3 sacks and 5 rushing touchdowns as a junior in 2011. That effort built off a foundational sophomore season highlighted by 9 sacks and 7 scores on the ground.
Despite his impressive productivity and desirable linebacker frame (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), he waited months for collegiate interest to escalate.
A turning point occurred in February 2012 when the first scholarship offer arrived — ironically, from foreign Big Ten territory.
Northwestern broke the ice, setting the stage for a frenzied stretch. West Virginia, Connecticut and in-state Rutgers extended offers during a six-day span between Feb. 17 and Feb. 22.
Suddenly, this South Jersey monster was on the map.
“Recently, I feel like I’m Brandon’s mailman or secretary,” former Oakcrest head coach Chuck Smith told me as Bell’s fortune-changing winter progressed. “I spend so much time talking to college coaches every day.”
His offer sheet swelled to include Boston College, Purdue, Syracuse and nearby Temple. But this was Penn State’s battle to lose from the moment it made a move.
Bell visited State College multiple times during the spring of his junior year and he pounced at an opportunity to pledge June 13, 2012.
“Penn State is a great school academically,” Bell said after his initial commitment. “When it comes to football, they’ve been known as ‘Linebacker U’ for a long time. I’m excited to become a part of that.”
Though he built his reputation on defense, Bell also commanded respect as a high school ball-carrier. His powerful lower body and aggressive downhill rushing style helped him plunge ahead for key first downs and touchdowns, while tallying multiple 100-yard games.
“He explodes off the tape when you watch game film,” Smith said prior to his star pupil’s senior season. “Brandon is a game-changer every play on defense, and when he gets reps on offense it’s the same thing.”
During our discussion less than a month before National Signing Day, Bell explained that some schools actually left the door open for offensive snaps.
Interesting note from my conversation with #PennState LB commit Brandon Bell: Both Purdue & UF mentioned possibility of him playing fullback
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) January 19, 2013
But among most college scouts, and his high school coach, the conversation always circled back to defense when breaking down Bell’s best attributes. Additionally, his leadership tendencies emerged at an early age.
He served as a team captain, and eventually filled the same role at Penn State. His magnetism with teammates has always been based on accountability, not bravado.
“Brandon is a laid-back, quiet guy who has no ego,” Smith said as offers began to pour in during the spring of 2012. “In practice, games and in the weight room he commands respect by the way he presents himself and works. He leads by example and assumed the role of team leader as a junior.”
Though former Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien and his staff saw an impact prospect on tape, and re-affirmed their interest in person, few in the recruiting industry paid much mind to Bell as a blue-chip talent.
Here’s a rundown of how industry leaders rated and ranked him coming out of Oakcrest:
- 247Sports: 3-star recruit; No. 43 inside linebacker; No. 27 overall prospect in N.J.
- ESPN: 3-star recruit; No. 65 outside linebacker; No. 25 overall prospect in N.J.
- Rivals: 3-star recruit; No. 42 inside linebacker; No. 23 overall prospect in N.J.
- Scout: 3-star recruit; No. 17 inside linebacker; No. 13 overall prospect in N.J.
The relationship between Bell — and other members of that 2013 Nittany Lions recruiting class — and the program faced a significant test in July 2012.
In the wake of a tumultuous period at Penn State that included child sex-abuse charges against former football assistant Jerry Sandusky, and the departure and death of legendary program leader Joe Paterno, the NCAA announced crushing sanctions that summer. They included a $60 million fine, the vacating of 112 victories (restored in 2015), scholarship restrictions and a four-year bowl ban (lifted in 2014).
Bell suddenly found himself on shaky recruiting ground, hounded by media and college coaching staffs about whether he would follow through with his commitment to Penn State. After a period of reflection, a verdict was reached:
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) August 7, 2012
Bell finished his Oakcrest career with 309 tackles and accolades that included first-team All-Cape Atlantic League and first-team All-Atlantic City Press.
He enrolled on campus in June 2013, officially becoming a member of the Nittany Lions football program.
We spoke that morning during the drive from his hometown of Mays Landing, N.J., to an unknown future in Happy Valley — me sitting in a radio studio not far from the community he was leaving, Bell navigating through some small town in eastern Pennsylvania — and one element of our conversation stood out.
Bell didn’t want to fail the fabled “Linebacker U” history at Penn State. He hoped to etch another name into the annals of steady and strong Nittany Lions linebacker play.
Now, four years, 226 tackles, 11.5 sacks, one coaching regime change and a Rose Bowl appearance later, Bell is a professional football player.
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) May 3, 2017
Penn State coach James Franklin, who replaced O’Brien (now head coach of the Houston Texans) in 2014, summed up his experience with Bell in a statement released Tuesday.
“Brandon is Penn Stater through and through and we are so excited for him to become the next member of Linebacker U to play in the NFL,” Franklin said “He has great instincts and feel for the game that made him an indispensable part of our defense. He also found success in the classroom, graduating in December with his degree in telecommunications.”
The Cincinnati Bengals rookie took a moment to reflect Monday as a guest on 97.3 ESPN-South Jersey’s “The Sports Bash” with hosts Mike Gill and Pete Thompson. They sat in the same studio as I did during my final conversation with the lauded linebacker before he become a Nittany Lion.
“It flew by, I can definitely say that,” Bell told the tandem. “There was turmoil here and there, but it made most of us better men and better players. We learned a lot from everything that happened. I’m overly pleased with my experience at Penn State.”