Recruiting Profile: George Bell
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 2/23/04

Three years ago, in January of 2001, superstar Hokie quarterback Michael Vick announced that he was leaving school early to enter the NFL draft. Hokie fans bemoaned the loss of Virginia Tech's star athlete and publicity machine, a magnetic player and personality so well-known that the maroon #7 jersey he wore became an icon to itself, burned into the public's consciousness, like Joe Montana's #16 or Dale Earnhardt's #3.

Into this void stepped Kevin Jones, the number one recruit in the nation, and he boldly took to the role of stardom and embraced the #7 jersey and all it represented. Though Jones changed to #25 for his final season at Virginia Tech, his acceptance of the challenge of wearing Vick's famous #7 made an immediate statement about him, his goals, and what he represented.

With Jones leaving for the NFL after a successful three-year career, Hokies fans, accustomed now to rooting for football players that transcend the team and whose images come to represent Virginia Tech football, are casting their eyes about for the next great Virginia Tech football star.

Enter tailback George Bell. Hailing from Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Bell brings a four-star rating and lofty expectations with him to Virginia Tech. A participant in the prestigious Army All-American Game, he is the heir apparent to the star status of Vick and Jones. If Bell's VT career works out as planned, one day the name "George" or "Bell" will resonate like "Michael" and "KJ."

Lofty expectations? Sure. Fair? (Shrug.) Who knows? Only time will tell.

But after interviewing Bell and his coach, Richard Bailey, the day before Bell departed Fayetteville for Virginia Tech in January, I know a few things about George Bell at this point. Number one, Bell is ready for the challenge. Number two, he has the temperament and work ethic.

Number three, there's that knee.


With great players like George Bell, coaches at each school they play at always hear about them before they get old enough to play at that level. So it is with Bell and Jack Britt coach Richard Bailey.

When Bailey talks about Bell, he speaks with excitement and gushes with good humor over his star running back of the last four years. Bailey has been the head coach at Jack Britt since the school opened four years ago, Bell's freshman year.

And Bailey remembers the first time he saw Bell.

"He was one of those kids that you heard about before you ever met him," Bailey recalls. "As I was going around to the middle schools, I had begun hearing, 'Hey, you need to see this Bell kid at John Griffin middle school.' I had heard rumors about him having to carry around his birth certificate to games, because nobody believed he was young enough to be playing middle school football. I definitely wanted to see this kid, and the first time I met him, I was impressed. He had a baby face, but even as a 14-year-old, he had the body of a 19, 20 year old man. He was 195 pounds as a freshman and had great speed. As an 8th-grader, he won the 100 meters and the shot put in our county, so he had a rare combination of great size and speed."

As a brand new high school, Jack Britt had to pull students from surrounding high schools, and many of them, especially seniors, decided to stay and finish at their present high schools, according to Bailey. This meant that Jack Britt had very few seniors, and not many juniors. That's a problem for a football coach. "We had a varsity team made up of freshmen and sophomores and a few juniors."

That didn't stop Jack Britt from being competitive. They won their first ever game, in the fall of 2000 against Terry Sanford, and went 5-6 in their inaugural season, 2-6 in conference. That was due in large part to Bell, who ran for 1,100 yards, despite being just a ninth grader.

"I'm telling you, we didn't have anybody on our offense that was even old enough to drive," Bailey chuckles. "We had a sophomore quarterback, and everybody else was, like, freshmen. George got no blocking. If he had had any blocking, he would have rushed for two thousand yards.

"I'll tell you a great run he had his freshman year against Lumberton," Bailey goes on. "He ran a play that was a toss sweep into the boundary, and two guys came up to hit him. He split them, ran both of them over, and ran about 40 yards down the sideline. Even people from Lumberton were going, 'Oooooh!!'"

The summer after that, things started happening for Bell on the recruiting front. "He started going to camps," according to Bailey, "and Tennessee basically offered him between his freshman and sophomore years. They had him at camp, and they couldn't believe he was only 14 years old. They had probably five hundred kids at their camp, and he stood out. Coach Fulmer called him into his office to talk to him. He singled him out."

The following season, Jack Britt's record improved to 7-4 overall, and their in-conference record to 4-3, in North Carolina's toughest conference at their highest level of competition (Group 4-A). Bell wasn't as big a part of that success though, because of a broken wrist he suffered in the third game of the season. When he returned from the injury, Bell had to play in a cast, and Bailey limited his playing time. Bell put together an 864-yard season, despite playing in only seven games.

Then came Bell's junior year, a year that dawned with promise. He was now a fixture on the recruiting front, drawing interest from colleges everywhere, and his season started off with a bang, as he rushed for 529 yards on 70 carries (7.6 ypc) in his first three games, scoring seven touchdowns.

In game four, Jack Britt clashed with South View, with both schools ranked in the state's top ten. South View had not given up a hundred yards rushing all season long, and Bell, "running like a man possessed," according to Bailey, piled up 127 yards rushing in the first half, well on his way to a two-hundred yard game against one of the best defenses in the state.

And then it all came crashing down, on the second play of the second half.

The Knee, and Rehab

Bell, a soft-spoken teenager of few words, doesn't change his tone or hesitate when talking about the knee injury that would keep him off the football field for over a year.

"I was running, and I had an opening, and a guy tackled me from behind," he recalls. "He grabbed my shoulder, and my leg went out in front of me, and went straight [when it hit the ground]," similar to Bo Jackson's famous injury.

"I rolled over my leg, and my knee just went all kinds of ways. I thought I had dislocated my knee."

"That was major," Bailey says. "I've never seen an injury that bad, and the doctor who worked on him said he had never seen one that bad. He tore completely through his ACL and LCL. He pulled his meniscus away from the bone, and his MCL was torn, but not completely through. It was Willis McGahee, but worse. I thought he broke his leg. The doctor said it looked like somebody had put an explosive in his leg and set it off."

"I never got up from that," Bell says of the moments following the injury. "I never stood on it, they just carried me into the training room. They didn't tell me that I had torn my ACL, because I think I would have broken down right there. They waited and took me to the hospital the next day, and that's when I found everything out."

"Your first reaction is, why him?" Bailey asks. "George is such a tremendous young man. You'll not meet a finer person. I've known him for four years, and I've never heard him even say a cuss word. He's just a great kid."

But that great kid was at a crossroads, and how he handled this injury would determine the course of his life for years to come. Some kids respond well, some don't. According to Bailey, Bell calmly accepted his situation and immediately set his mind on rehabilitation.

"I cried," Bell remembers, "but I knew in my mind that a lot of people had this, and I knew rehab was going to come. I just knew if I rehabbed it, that I could come back. I had the faith that I was going to be okay."

Faith was the key. Bell acknowledges that he is a religious person, and his faith helped him take the long view and understand that what he was facing was, in his own succinct description, "Just another test."

"George is a devout Christian," Bailey agrees. "There's no doubt about it. He's a go-to-church-every-Sunday guy. Their family, if you ask them, they say, we're going to put it in the hands of God, and he's going to work miracles for us. George is very much the type that puts his faith in God. His parents always talk about how God has a path for George, and there's some reason this injury happened -- that's how they talked about it. Like, this will make George concentrate on his academics more, and this will teach George how fleeting football can be, that sort of thing."

Bell threw himself into what had to be done.

Bailey points out that applying himself to a task wasn't anything new for Bell. "You're talking about an unbelievable work ethic. Most 16 or 17 year olds aren't going to work that hard to come back from an injury. It's hard, that everyday drudgery. When you go two to three months, and just take baby steps � you're doing months of work just to be able to straighten your leg out. It took six months for him to be able to straighten his leg out.

"What was magical was when he was getting closer, when he got to about a year, it was almost on a daily basis making leaps and bounds, because you get to a point where the knee itself is fine and stable. The doctor told me that right now, he'd be more apt to tear his other knee up than the one they repaired.

"The thing about George is, he never doubted himself. Athletically, he never doubts himself. He was like, 'Coach, I'm going to come back. I will be back.' You never heard him question that he was going to come back."

Making it Back

Bell eventually returned very late in his senior season, rushing for 279 yards in three games, including a playoff game. In his first game back, he saw very limited work, but the taste of competition after being out for so long was sweet.

"It was exciting," Bell says. "I didn't play that much my first game. I only had three or four carries [for 17 yards]. I did break one run, though, for ten yards and a first down, but they didn't keep me in that much. That was kind of frustrating, because they had fourth and ones that I could have gotten, even if I was hurt.

"Later on, I felt good, and I played the whole game. Against Richmond County, I think I had 121 yards on 16 or 17 carries. Then in the playoff game, I had 31 carries for 141 yards."

The biggest honor of Bell's career came in January, when he played against the best of the best in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. The team is picked from the nation-wide pool of high school players by the Army and recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, who ranks Bell as the #28 player in the country.

"The talent was crazy," Bell says of his trip to San Antonio to participate in practices and play in the game. "Everybody was good, fast. It's what college is going to be like. It was a good experience practicing and playing the game."

Bell didn't score, but he did lead the East in rushing with 6 carries for 48 yards, in a 45-28 win.

He pooh-poohs his accomplishment.

"I didn't think I did too well," he says flatly. "I didn't feel too good about my speed, so I'm working on that."

"The thing that people don't realize," Bailey says about Bell's current condition, "is the atrophy of all the muscles around the knee and in the leg. That's what's holding him back right now. He's close now to what he was before. When he went to the Army All-American game, we ran some before he left, and he was in the mid-4.6, 4.7 range. But every time he goes out, he's getting faster and faster, getting back to where he was.

"He ran 4.5 on the dot for NC State at their camp, prior to his junior year. He runs 4.45, 4.4 for me, but he ran 4.5 for those college coaches, and of course, NC State offered him that day, because he weighs 225 pounds doing it [laughs]."

Which brings us to the question: when Bell tore his knee up, what did the schools who were recruiting him do? NC State had offered him a scholarship -- his first -- after the first game of his junior year, and he was also involved with North Carolina, Tennessee, and UCLA, among others.

"After I got hurt, NC State, they stayed with me. Tennessee, they didn't. They just left me. I understand, though. Carolina and Virginia Tech and UCLA, they wanted to see how I did, and how my progress was going."

Bell says that VT didn't come calling until after he got hurt. Virginia also recruited Bell, but they never offered him a scholarship. "They wanted me to come up to their camp, so they could see how I ran, but I didn't go. UCLA said the same thing. I went up there for the camp, but I didn't get offered, and they stopped calling."

(Bell's interest in UCLA came about because his father, who divorced his mother long ago, now lives out in California. Bell's mother has since remarried.)

Making the Decision

Bell announced his decision to attend Virginia Tech on October 22nd, on the TV show "Countdown to Signing Day," and the most surprising thing he said about his decision was a statement he made in an interview with TSL's Chris Horne a few days later, in which Bell said he finally made up his mind "At the television studio. It was during the break before I was going to come on and announce my decision. I knew I had to go ahead and make my choice, and that's when I decided on Virginia Tech."

NC State finished second, and Bell said he chose the Hokies for their winning tradition, and, "I knew whatever school I played at, I was going to get some playing time and be a factor. I guess it just went to where I felt comfortable with the players. I felt comfortable with the other schools, but I guess I wanted something different. And I wanted to get out of [North] Carolina. But not too far."

Bell told Michigan of his decision before he announced it on TV, and he called the NC State coaches right after that. He tried to call the North Carolina coaches, but they didn't answer. That doesn't mean the Tarheel coaches, including head coach John Bunting, were mad. "Coach Bunting called Virginia Tech and congratulated them, and told them that they had a good person."

The Hokies sold Bell on the very real possibility that Kevin Jones was going pro early, and that his departure would leave a void at running back that Bell would have a chance to fill. "Of course they said it. They brought it up, and it made sense that if he was gone, I'd have a chance at early PT. They played those cards."

"The number one reason he's going to Virginia Tech," Bailey reinforces, "is that what the coaches told him was going to happen, happened. Kevin Jones went pro early, Cedric Humes is a good back but not necessarily a feature back, and a guy that George can press for playing time. And the Imoh kid is more of a third-down scat-back type, who returns kicks and catches passes, but who won�t be the focal point of the offense. George thinks he can play."

The last piece of the puzzle was for Bell to arrive early, by graduating high school in December and enrolling at VT in January. January enrollment was something Bell wanted to do the instant he found out he could do it, regardless of where he decided to go to college.

"I just found out that I could do that [enroll early] my junior season. I had to go to summer school for one class. No matter what school I went to, I wanted to graduate early and get started with things."

What did teammates say when he committed to VT? "My friends, they want to get out of North Carolina, so seeing me get out of North Carolina, they were excited. They like the other schools, but Carolina wasn't winning, so they joked, 'You better not go there.' My decision wasn't based on that, though. We were just joking."

Jones' Heir Apparent, but a Different Style

Kevin Jones and George Bell share some similarities -- calm, quiet personalities and the willingness to don Tech's #7 jersey -- and they're alike in other ways, with both players showing class and composure on the field.

"He's very competitive," Bailey says of Bell. "He's not going to back down, but when he scores a touchdown, he's going to just hand the ball to the official and jog to the sidelines. I've never seen him do anything that I thought was remotely unsportsmanlike. Guys on the other team like to test themselves against him, but he doesn�t get wrapped up in that stuff."

But even those who have known Bell for years say that he doesn't say much, and keeps to himself, whereas those who know Jones describe him as a joker with a good sense of humor, a guy who is quick to smile.

The Hokies hooked Bell partly because of their low-key approach. They didn't roll out the red carpet when Bell was in town. "I don't like that," Bell notes. "I know it's going to happen, and I deal with it, but it's not what I prefer."

"There were times where I tried to get George to be a more vocal leader," Bailey says, "because everybody's scared of him, anyway [laughs]. But to be honest with you, he's a lead by example guy. He's not going to be a rah-rah guy. But if you want to talk about someone who inspires you just watching him, he inspires me every time I see him, whether it's in the weight room, or conditioning drills, or whatever."

As a runner, Bell isn't as elusive as Jones (then again, who is?). He's got some moves and speed, but he's more of a power runner.

When asked to describe Bell's abilities, Bailey talks for a while.

"He is very much a Ricky Williams type. He's a power runner. He has enough elusiveness to make people miss, but that's not where he's going to make his bacon. He's breaking tackles and running people over. But he has the speed, like Ricky Williams, that if he gets out in front of people, they're not going to catch him. He's got enough speed to get away from people. He had a 99-yard run for me in high school. He was running away from 160-pound defensive backs.

"He's only about 5-11, and you put 225 pounds on a guy that size � he doesn't have any fat, so he carries that weight naturally. Big arms, big chest, big calves. If you ever meet him in person, check out how big his wrists are. He's got the forearms of a 300-pound lineman.

"What the [Virginia Tech] coaches are talking to me and him about is using him and the Humes kid at the same time. They're really similar, and they're talking about using them in tandem, where either one could be the lead blocker for the other one, and play that fullback role. So you wouldn't really know which one was getting the ball."

Bell might also catch passes out of the backfield, bringing to mind the vision of a 225-pound monster bearing down on defensive backs. "George has good hands," Bailey notes. "We didn't throw to him a lot, but our offensive coordinator says he has the best hands on our team."

Bailey sums up Bell like this: "One thing that I tell people: What happens in every game he plays in, early in the game, you see these secondary guys, corners and safeties, flying up, trying to tackle him and get in on the pile. By the second half, they're nowhere to be seen. They're finding ways to get blocked, because they don�t want to hit him any more."

Bell agrees that he's a Ricky Williams type, and the thought of following in the footsteps of Kevin Jones doesn�t intimidate him.

"I don't think I'm going to be the next Kevin Jones," he says. "I'm going to be the next George Bell, though [chuckles]. He brings a lot to the table, and I know I bring a lot. I bring the size and the speed. He brings the speed. He wasn't quite as big as me, so I think I bring a different kind of style. I think I can do the things that he did, though."

Nor does the thought of stepping into Michael Vick's famous #7 jersey bother him.

"That's the number that I wanted to get. I told them that I want number 7. They didn't retire the number, just Vick's jersey."

Bell pauses ever so slightly.

"I want to see my jersey next to his."

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