Overlooked no more: 'Grinder' Ronnie Bell grabs lead role in Michigan's receiving cast
Ann Arbor — Among sophomore Ronnie Bell’s biggest fans are a trio of Michigan freshmen receivers who have something he doesn’t have this year — a touchdown reception.
Mike Sainristil, Cornelius Johnson and Giles Jackson have scored this season, while all Bell has done is lead the team with 37 catches for 621 yards (16.8 yards per catch). He is coming off a stellar outing against Michigan State in which he set career highs in catches (nine) and receiving yards (150) to go along with five receptions of 15 yards or more.
The 12th-ranked Wolverines (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) are preparing for their final regular-season road game at Indiana on Saturday. Maybe there Bell, who had two touchdown catches last season, will get that elusive score.
"Every time he’ll catch a ball, me, Mikey and C.J. will be super excited, then he’ll step out, ‘Ahhhhh, Ronnie,'" Jackson said Tuesday after practice. “He’ll get it one day.”
Johnson has four catches this season, including a 39-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Shea Patterson in the 44-10 win over Michigan State.
“It was just funny because like, technically, I’ve got more touchdowns than Ronnie, but obviously he has the most yards and catches on the team,” Johnson said. “I’m happy for Ronnie. He’s going to keep on pushing and he’ll get tons of touchdowns for sure.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had a sort of told-you-so-moment during his radio show Monday night.
“I’ve been talking about Ronnie Bell since August to all media types,” Harbaugh said. “Every time I’d say Ronnie Bell, (it was), ‘Yeah, yeah Ronnie Bell, but tell us about Donovan (Peoples-Jones), tell us about Tarik (Black) and tell us about Nico Collins.’
“Ronnie, yeah, he catches the ball everywhere. He catches it on the perimeter, he catches it over the middle, he catches it down the sideline, he catches it on the slants. He blocks, he has the yards after catch. He is our leading receiver. He never misses a practice, never misses a game. He’s having a spectacular year.”
For the record, Collins and Peoples-Jones have four touchdown receptions apiece.
Bell, who had committed to play college basketball at Missouri State and signed a letter of intent before deciding to play football at Michigan, doesn’t mind that he was sort of under the radar coming into the season.
“Came in, was supposed to be hooping so nothing I was worried about,” Bell said.
It has been a unique season for Bell on so many levels. He experienced a difficult moment at Penn State as the Wolverines clawed back from a 21-0 deficit. Late in the game, Bell dropped a fourth-down pass from Patterson in the end zone that would have tied the game. The Nittany Lions held on for the 28-21 win.
Bell was emotionally distraught on the sideline after the play but was surrounded by teammates and coaches who encouraged him in the days that followed when he endured some harsh criticism via social media.
“I was just sick,” Bell said. “I felt I let everybody down. I was very mad at myself. Sick. Sick feeling.”
But his teammates embraced him.
“Everybody was there to pick me up," Bell said. "It was really hard to be down on myself by the time we were back here. It wasn’t really hard, because everybody was right there with me every step of the way picking me up.”
The following week against Notre Dame, Bell caught a 9-yard pass from Patterson late in the first half and the Michigan Stadium crowd cheered for the young man who had taken ridiculous shots on social media for dropping a pass.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Bell said. “I didn’t realize what was being said because the rain was smacking my helmet. All I heard was a lot of noise. I thought it was pretty cool.”
Catching passes is what receivers love — blocking, not so much. But Bell loves it. It was ingrained in him at an early age by his father, Aaron.
“When I was younger, (my dad) told me you don’t get to play if you can’t block,” Bell said. “Blocking for me has always been something I take very personal. I feel in the receiver room we’ve done a really good job this year of making it something that’s personal, so every receiver has blocked their tail off this year.”
When Harbaugh said a few days after the Penn State game that he would “take as many Ronnie Bells as we could possibly get on the team,” he meant it for his all-around ability as well as his tireless approach in every phase in practice, games and workouts.
The freshmen say Bell has them under his wing, teaching them during practices and encouraging them in games.
“He’s a grinder,” Johnson said. “I feel like if you look at Ronnie’s game, you’re never going to outwork him. He’s very, very focused. That’s what I take away from him. I try to emulate that. Finishing the play. He’ll catch a pass and run down field for 20 yards, 30 yards even in practice. You can see that pays off his run after catch in games.”
Bell was a basketball player and that appeared to be his destiny. Harbaugh has always said he likes football players with multi-sport backgrounds, so score another one for Bell.
They are different games, to be sure, but the footwork from basketball translates to playing receiver, as does the general athleticism. That background has helped Bell make a smooth transition.
“Honestly, basketball is a lot of up and down, up and down, up and down and with the ball in the air, (and) one thing my dad told me toward the end of basketball when I became athletic and dunking, he was like, I don’t really care for my body when I’m in the air,” Bell said. “In football, when the ball is in the air, you’re jumping in the air, never a hesitation for anything around you. You just know to catch the ball.”
Harbaugh said Bell’s basketball background perhaps has assisted him in finding open areas, making catches and finding yards after catches.
“He’s made a lot of clutch catches,” Harbaugh said on his radio show. "The toughest ones are the ones across the middle for any wide receiver. He’s a tough guy. Every day he comes out there to practice to get better. I’ve heard him say, ‘Don’t baby me. Don’t treat me with any kid gloves,’ to coach (Josh) Gattis. His dad’s a coach. Coach’s kids are usually pretty darn good. He’s everything you’d want.”