When Jim Harbaugh was asked about Tarik Black — Michigan’s presumed number three wide receiver going into the offseason — on Monday afternoon, he gave the customary assurance of a strong training camp to spur August optimism.
In these settings, Harbaugh prefers to be a man of few words, complimenting the player he’s been asked about and moving on to the next question. Parsing meaning can be fruitless — it’s rarely an endorsement or indictment. This time, he followed up with something far more telling: unprompted praise of sophomore receiver Ronnie Bell.
“The other receiver, Ronnie Bell, he’s probably our most improved player on offense who played last year,” Harbaugh said. “If you were to say, ‘Who is your most improved player on offense who played last year?,’ I would say Ronnie Bell.”
For Bell, this offseason has been his first with any sort of assuredness in his role. A former basketball player who is only playing college football thanks to a late offer from Michigan, Bell entered his freshman season last year with no playing-time guarantees.
Eleven months later, he recalls the turning point coming in the Wolverines’ 56-10 win over Nebraska in late September — “I played quite a bit and that was kind of the jump from there,” he said.
But even then, Bell was the fun story of a former basketball player finding his place at Michigan. His 56-yard touchdown against Nebraska — his first career catch — came in the waning moments of a 46-point blowout. The next week, in a narrow win over Northwestern, his stat line was one rush for negative-two yards.
November brought more promise — Bell notched five receptions over the last three games including two against Ohio State — but he still entered the offseason seemingly mired behind Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins on the depth chart. Even that fourth spot, likely a significant role in Josh Gattis’ offense, was subject to healthy competition.
Since them, Bell has revolutionized himself.
“I would say I’m much more comfortable, much more mature and just kind of mentally ready for what I’m getting myself into this year than I was last year,” he said. “Last year when I got here, it was more of camp football. This year, it was more of getting ready for the season, getting my mindset ready to go.”
With the season three days away, Bell won’t give his opponents the advantage of knowing the “little details” and route-running improvements he and Gattis have focused on, but both he and Harbaugh are eager to discuss his physical preparations for an increased workload.
“His body is changing from a basketball physique to a football physique,” Harbaugh said. “He’s really made ascending strides, very positive.”
As a reporter relayed Harbaugh’s assertion to Bell on Tuesday afternoon, he smiled, taking the moment to bask in his coach’s praise.
“That sounds good, that sounds good to me,” Bell said. “That’s probably one of the biggest things is just being strong.”
But Bell, still listed at just 6’0”, 184 pounds, isn’t staking his claim to playing time on size, even if his signature play of fall camp came on a jump ball catch on a go-route.
His ascension began in spring ball, after injuries to Peoples-Jones and Collins afforded him the opportunity to maximize reps as Gattis began to implement his offense. Now the star of fall camp, Bell should have newfound opportunity to translate those reps to game action.
“I know when it’s time to play, we’re going to play,” Bell said. “And we’re going to take care of business. All of us.”