DeKALB – He was one of the last to walk off the practice field Wednesday. His position coach was beside him each step.
They conversed their way to the goalpost near the Yordon Center. Urgency existed. Coach jabbed his hand when he talked. His player got the point.
“I didn’t have my greatest day of practice today,” Northern Illinois H-Back Cameron Bell said. “But I’m going to go in – I’m about to go upstairs pretty soon – and correct those mistakes.”
His mistakes were minor, easy to correct. Tight end and fullbacks coach Kevin Kane wanted him to play faster. While he does that, Bell knows he needs to “focus in” and allow the game to come to him.
It was a nagging frustration, an urgent need to improve. But Bell couldn’t stop smiling. Right now, nothing can keep him down.
His college career – now on its final leg – includes a three-year stint as an Iowa State linebacker, a long redshirt season because of NCAA transfer rules and multiple position changes. It’s hard for Bell to regret any of it. His winding path led him here.
The fifth-year senior is scheduled to make his first NIU start at 6 p.m. Saturday when the Huskies host Army.
“I’m really filled with excitement,” Bell said, still smiling. “This is an opportunity I’ve been waiting for to be a starter, and words can’t express how happy I am to be a part of this team, to be a part of something that’s going to be great. We’re going to have an awesome season. It’s going to be fun.
“I’ve really embraced it. I’m ready to show the world what Cameron Bell is made of. I just can’t wait until Saturday.”
Bell, who has had few subpar practices this fall, is starting at a position he never played before the spring. In those first few April practices, a successful transition was anything but certain.
“It was a lot of run the play, look back, ‘Coach, did I do it right?’ type of deal,” Kane said. “Sometimes that’s still there, but if he’s going to mess up it’s going to be at 100 miles per hour. If he’s running around at 100 miles per hour, it’s a big collision going on somewhere. From day one to day now, there has been a huge improvement.”
There seemed to be no shortage on adjustments to make. It was more than technique, although proper footwork and blocking in open space were among the most difficult lessons.
Bell said he had to learn how to play at a different pace. As a running back, his job was to be as fast as possible always. H-Backs must have patience, motioning from one side of the field to the other before the snap, setting up blocks before hitting the defender.
Bell grasped it all in just a couple months.
“Light years. That is simply the word that I can say to compare how much better it feels than the spring,” Bell said. “The reason being because knowledge is power. The more you know, the better you become. And at the position that I’m playing, I didn’t know very much going in. My coaches told me to just go run and hit somebody. Run and hit that guy. Now I’ve learned to gather my feet, learn technique, block in space – things like that.”
Bell had all the physical tools to help NIU’s offense, but he had to get over a mental block. When the idea of position change was first pitched, Bell said he was hesitant to accept it. Even now, he admits his plan never had his career finishing this way.
But over the summer, Bell realized moving to H-Back could be a disguised opportunity. Running back was filled with four players who are still fighting for playing time. Bell’s chances of getting carries were poor, and he wasn’t in the position to wait for next year.
The senior just wanted to play.
So he focused on his game during June and July, working himself into the H-Back mold. Come August, coach Dave Doeren said Bell looked the part.
“When we first got back from fall camp,” Doeren said, “he was right away, clicking.”
College football is a very cut-and-dry environment. Make the plays, earn the snaps. Fail to produce, stick on the sideline. In a culture where winning is everything, there is no room for in between.
But Kane admits there is a human side to Bell’s story, one that makes him want to invest in the senior’s development even more. That urgency isn’t going anywhere.
“Going into my room, I didn’t know what he was going to be like,” Kane said. “I just knew he had played at Iowa State before, and now he got moved from tailback – which he loved – to an H-Back type of player. I’m very proud to say that he’s bought into what we’re doing.
“I’m excited to see what he’s going to do on Saturday, and then we’ll go from there.”