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'He sets the tone': Michigan's Ronnie Bell ready to carry the load of young receiving corps

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The day after Ronnie Bell arrived at his family home in Kansas City, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when Michigan shut down on-campus activities in mid-March, his father, Aaron, wasn’t about to let him sit idle.

Bell, entering his junior season at Michigan as the top returning receiver, and, it appears now, also the leader of the position group, would have been starting spring practice with his teammates back then. Without practice and needing to stay in shape, his father devised a unique plan for Ronnie.

Ronnie Bell

“Second day I was home, he said, ‘We’re going to push the truck,’” Bell said Thursday during a Zoom call with reporters.

The “truck” is a Chevy Tahoe, which weighs about 5,600 pounds.

“Never a dull moment here,” Aaron said.

With the Tahoe in neutral, Bell pushed it around the neighborhood, while racing his 16-year-old twin brothers, Marqueas and Kendrick, and Aaron shouting encouragement.

“They pushed a little Lexus and I had to push the Tahoe, so it was two of them with a car not even half the size,” Ronnie Bell said. “But it was fun. It was definitely a lot of fun racing those two doing that.”

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If that wasn’t tough enough, Bell now appears to have to carry the young but talented receiving group on his shoulders entering this abbreviated season that begins Oct. 24 when the Wolverines travel to Minnesota. The Big Ten last week announced an eight-game season with a plus-one seeded crossover game.

There’s been no definitive word on receiver Nico Collins’ status, but he signed with an agent after the Big Ten announced last month it was postponing the season, and it’s unclear whether he will choose to try to return to the Wolverines or continue preparing for the NFL Draft. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Collins would have given Michigan that big-body receiver who could have built on his production from last year when he had 729 yards on 37 catches and seven touchdowns.

Still, Bell, a former college basketball commitment who ultimately decided to play football at Michigan, is the leading returning receiver after catching 48 passes for 758 yards last season. He scored one touchdown.

Bell said he has spoken to Collins and will not second guess whatever path he’s taking.

“Our room with him,” Bell said, pausing to laugh, “of course, would be better. He’s one of the best receivers that, personally, I’ve ever been around.

“Not having him is like kinda bums, but our room is still very good, though. I’m not discouraged or anything like that without running out there with No. 4 (Collins). Having Nico, it would be huge. He’s a very, very talented receiver.”

Ronnie Bell pushes a Chevy Tahoe in his Kansas City neighborhood.

Not having Collins seems to be what the tea leaves are revealing. While it would be a boost for Michigan, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who also coaches the receivers, seems more than pleased with the group that includes sophomore receivers Mike Sainristil, Giles Jackson and Cornelius Johnson, speedy freshmen A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson, and the veteran, Bell.

Gattis is relying on Bell for his leadership, not to mention the talent he brings to the field in the second-year coordinator’s speed-in-space offense. The offense will revolve around a first-year starting quarterback, more than likely, Joe Milton.

“Ronnie is a guy that, he sets the tone in practice because he practices so hard,” Gattis said this week during a video conference with reporters. “Just being able to have a guy who has played a ton of football, he understands things, and Ronnie is motivated.

“Even though what a lot of people viewed as success for Ronnie last year, Ronnie believes, and he knows that last year, it was just scratching the surface. There were opportunities to be even better and now it's about how we can take his game from one year and develop it the next year and make it even better, so just being able to have him around in that room with that veteran leadership as well as his play-making ability (is important).

“He is another guy who has created explosive plays for us with ball-in-hand type plays, so we're really excited about being able to take his game and make that jump as a second-year player because he didn't play a lot of football his first year. So now getting more comfortable playing receiver and getting to develop him has been fun.”

Bell is the catalyst in the receivers room. As he works to improve his game, he knows he is the tone-setter, the lead-by-example guy with his younger teammates. With Donovan Peoples-Jones gone to the NFL, Tarik Black now playing at Texas and the uncertainty regarding Collins, Bell realizes he has to be sage veteran.

“I’m low-key, kinda old,” Bell said. “For all the younger guys, every day in practice I just want to show them, one, the effort it takes, whether that’s when you get the ball or not or when you’re out there blocking on the edge, I want to show all the guys the intensity that we’ve got to play with, especially with all the tall guys leaving.”

With the “tall guys” like Peoples-Jones and Black gone, as well as Collins, Bell said the receivers must take on a different demeanor in games.

“We’ve definitely got to be a lot more feisty than we were,” he said.

Ronnie Bell

He expects Sainristil, Johnson and Jackson to have big seasons because they have all expanded their knowledge of the playbook, in return making themselves more versatile.

“I feel like their freshman year, all of them were kinda focused in on one thing,” Bell said. “From their freshman year to right now you can just tell they’re very sharp and can dissect the whole offense.”

Henning and Wilson are pure speed, Gattis said.

“They immediately step on that field and they make our team faster, they make the game faster,” Gattis said. “They’re just exceptional football players, very smart, very athletic, they both have great ball skills. I really love our receiver room. The speed and athleticism that we have and the competition that’s brewing, it’s special to see.

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“I know our quarterbacks are enjoying it now, just as they’re enjoying the way our quarterbacks are playing.”

While all the receivers are expected to make contributions, Bell will have to flex his leadership muscles as well as his football skill. He has worked out with Milton since April when the two returned to Ann Arbor and have forged a chemistry. He has also had extra work with quarterback Cade McNamara before and after practices.

All signs are pointing to Milton taking over as starter this season, and Bell is ready to be part of this new era.

“I’ve been around Joe just as much as anybody, and he’s lights out right now,” Bell said. “It’s very exciting to play alongside him. I told the guys the other day, ‘Man, this is the best I’ve ever seen him play.’”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis