(In the lead-up to Alabama's semi-final match-up with Ohio State, RBR will be profiling Ohio State's best players in the secondary, linebacking corps and defensive line. This is the first in that series.)
Who in the heck is Vonn Bell? For Coach Nick Saban, he's the rare one who got away.
During the width and breadth of the Saban Era in Tuscaloosa, it has appeared that the former defensive back and secondary guru has cast a dragnet around the Southeast, locking down the most talented defensive backs and wooing them to T'Town. But the recruitment and subsequent commitment of Vonn Bell to the Ohio State Buckeyes was a coup, as after dogged recruiting by tOSU head coach Urban Meyer, Bell elected to eschew his Tennessee leanings and the defensive back king-maker at Alabama for the more northerly confines of Columbus.
The choice has suited the former UnderArmor All-American well, as after securing a starting role in the final game of his freshman season, Bell has gone on to become the Buckeyes' second leading tackler and a turnover machine. But who is this superstar in the making? Let's take a closer look.
Who in the heck is Vonn Bell?
The 5'11", 200 pound safety out of Ridgeland High School in Rossville, GA carried the "phenom" label coming out of high school, due to his rare combination of good size, explosiveness and superior speed for the safety position. And those early prognostications have proven correct, as through two seasons, Bell has done nothing to disprove them.
After seeing time in every game as a member of the two-deep in 2013, Bell finally got the chance for which he had worked in the 2013 Orange Bowl against Clemson. While Bell had rotated in at the nickel throughout his inaugural campaign, it was in the final game of his freshman campaign that he got his first career start. His play in that game demonstrated the wisdom of the coaching staff, as he had what could be characterized as the best first-start for a Buckeye defender in recent memory, racking up seven solo tackles and an eye-popping, one-handed Sportscenter Top 10 interception against former Heisman candidate and Clemson QB Taj Boyd. On that one play, Bell demonstrated what was to come: he leapt high and tipped the pass before athletically catching it himself, demonstrating the great hands for which he has come to be known.
With high aspirations coming into the 2014 season, Bell once again lived up to the hype. In 2014, Bell was the second leading tackler among Buckeye defenders with 78 (46 solo). His numbers against the pass are nauseating for opposing quarterbacks, as Bell accrued five interceptions, six passes-broken-up and 11 passes defended. Add in a fumble recovery, and it's clear that Bell is a turnover maven of the highest order.
If one were to pick the player Bell most resembles from recent Bama rosters, the obvious comparison would be to Landon Collins, the All-American safety who controls the defensive backfield for the Crimson Tide. Like Collins, Bell is strong against the pass and has a penchant for the big play in pass defense. He has been clocked at 4.45 in the 40, and has tremendous closing speed when the ball is in the air. Bell, as is the case with Collins, is also solid against the run thanks to a large frame for the position and a physical style, coupled with near perfect tackling fundamentals.
If you're not convinced, take the word of the guru himself for what it's worth.
"We thought Vonn Bell was an outstanding player and certainly would have wanted him in our program, and I think that if he was in our program right now, he would be a very productive player for us."
That's about as high as the praise gets from Saban, and Bell deserves every word. Bell would have been a fantastic fit at Alabama alongside Collins. Then again, a player like Bell is a fantastic fit anywhere he plays.
What to expect from Vonn Bell against Alabama
In many recent bowl games, Alabama has shown the importance of recruiting when it comes to the overall success of a team. In other words, if a team is loaded with four and five-star players on the two-deep, that team has a decided advantage and a higher chance of dominating a team with lesser talent. While that's not rocket science, it is a statement that precludes the following point.
Competing with teams like Ohio State, who have players like Bell, will be a whole different ball game. While Alabama can usually lean on its talent advantage, in the Sugar Bowl, that will not be the case, as Ohio State has numerous nationally recruited players who decided to don the scarlet and gray. Bell could have just as easily ended up on an SEC roster, and once there, would have been a phenomenal defender and All-American candidate. Urban Meyer has turned Ohio State into an SEC-type team playing in the Big10, and this team is not the Buckeye paper-tiger of recent memory. It is players like Bell who elevate the Buckeyes above their Big10 brethren, which should give fans of the Crimson Tide at least a little pause heading into the Sugar Bowl match-up.
Alabama's offense under Lane Kiffin has demonstrated a desire to create mismatches in coverage, whether using WR Amari Cooper in exotic alignments, throwing to the tailbacks or using tight end O.J. Howard's wide receiver skill-set against linebackers in coverage. Bell gives the Buckeyes the ability to offset some of those mismatches, as his size and athleticism allow him to play in run support as well as against multiple receiving options. However, it has been difficult for any defense this season to cover all of Bama's offensive weapons all of the time, so expect that trend to continue to some degree or another.
While Bell will likely not be called upon to cover Cooper one-on-one, he will more likely roll over into double-coverage against the All-American WR, or, as the nickel, pick up Cooper when he is in unconventional alignments. While Bell has the skill-set to win some of those battles, his coverage skills are not superior to those of other defensive backs Cooper has torched this season.
For the sake of comparison, one can look at Bell's performance in coverage against current NFL receiver Sammie Watkins in the '13 Orange Bowl. While Watkins is a different type of receiver in many ways, he possessed the kind of next-level talent that Cooper also displays. Against Watkins, Bell was able to hold his own, but he was also victimize by Watkins on at least one touchdown reception. Expect the same kind of thing if Bell is assigned Coop duty, as there is simply no defensive back in college football who can consistently keep Bama's play-maker from doing his thing.
One of Cooper's strengths is his ability to cleanly run routes like few other college receivers, as he gets in and out of his breaks sharply, oftentimes leaving defenders frozen. Bell has fantastic hip fundamentals and is as good a back-peddler as one will find in the college game, so his skill-set could give him a leg up over previous defenders regarding Coop's scalpel-like routes. That said, no one thus far has been able to corral Cooper, and it remains to be seen whether Bell and cornerback Doran Grant will have much more success.
The Ohio State staff likely won't waste Bell's impact by penning him into double-coverage against Cooper all of the time, as he is at his best when he's allowed to roam and make the kind of instinctual plays for which he has become known. If Bama QB Blake Sims has a slow start and is inaccurate with his passes (as he was in the first half of the Tide's match-up with Auburn), Bell could reap the rewards and help the Buckeyes flip the field. However, when Sims is on his game, he has proven to be surgical in the passing game, and with a corps of offensive weapons with which to dispense the enemy, Bell will need help from the rest of the talented OSU secondary to keep the lid on Kiffin's prolific offense.
Against the run, expect Bell to make his impact felt as a contributor on obvious run downs. As previously mentioned, he is a form-tackler, which is what one must be to avoid being made to look a fool against T.J. Yeldon. When Derrick Henry is in the game, Bell will need some help, as El Tractorcito outweighs him by nearly half a buck. As was obvious in the SEC Championship Game, the Bama coaching staff has unlocked the key to Henry's game: instead of bulling him into the heart of the line without momentum, they have begun to allow him a few sidesteps to build inertia prior to violent collisions with linebackers and safeties. Despite Bell's prowess in the running game, he would come out on the wrong side of that physics equation, so his impact against the run may be limited when Henry is in the back field.
While Bell is a phenomenal talent who can match skills with the best Bama has to offer, it will take more than one safety to quell Bama's most dynamic offense in recent memory. Make no mistake, the Buckeye cupboard is loaded with defensive talent, and Bell's Buckeyes will offer Alabama quite a challenge.