Let’s say you’d played a little game. It’s August 2019. You were awarded three guesses as to which Michigan football player would post the following stat line through the first 10 games of the season: 36 catches, 610 yards, five games with 80-plus yards and five games as the Wolverines’ leading receiver.
Nico Collins or Donovan Peoples-Jones, both bonafide NFL prospects, would have been the first names to roll off the tongue. Fellow junior Tarik Black undoubtedly would have followed soon thereafter.
Ronnie Bell’s name would not have occupied the same breath. But that’s where he is — the leading receiver on the team, on pace for the most receiving yards in a season since Amara Darboh in 2016. Even after a career-high 150-yard outburst against Michigan State, Bell’s mindset has never wavered.
Expectations have never occupied his lexicon. Now is hardly the time to start.
“Nah, I guess it’s always been like that (with low expectations), so it wasn’t nothing about, I was every worried about,” Bell said with a strident disregard. “Came in, supposed to be hooping, so it wasn’t nothing I was worried about.”
Bell’s backstory has been drawn out to the point of redundancy. It goes as follows: He was a little-known high school athlete in Kansas City, committed to Missouri State to play basketball. Michigan then plucked him off the scrap heap, much to the dismay of fans consumed by recruiting site rankings. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff stood steadfast by their decision. They were insistent they had a gem. They were ostensibly alone in that evaluation.
But in a recruiting ecosystem so saturated that it essentially negates true “sleepers,” they found one. They’re now reaping those benefits beyond anyone’s expectation.
Bell has weaponized that doubt for his own gain. Reporters still ask about his basketball history, even though the sophomore is as close to his hoops days on one end as he is to a potential NFL career on the other.
Those questions now tilt toward befuddlement. How did a two-star basketball recruit get to this point? Those inquisitions come with a hint of bemusement, as if this production is a mirage, or his improvement comes as a result of some magic pixie dust.
The answer, according to Bell and his teammates, is hardly so glamorous.
“Ronnie, he’s a grinder,” said freshman receiver Cornelius Johnson. “And if you look at Ronnie’s game, you’re never gonna outwork him. He’s like, very, very focused. That’s what I would take away. I try to emulate that when I see him.”
Added freshman receiver Giles Jackson: “He’s a big role model. Watching him practice and watching him play, he’s great to watch. He’s like a great big brother figure to me.”
Bell credits his coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, for helping him progress so rapidly. Harbaugh, for one, is not surprised by his rapid ascent.
“Thinking about Ronnie Bell, to me, is that he’s the same guy every day,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He practices every practice, plays in every game, wide awake in every meeting, and attacks every day determined to improve and get better. To me, there’s been the same guy.”
These are cliches that are frequently overplayed. Bell has loads of talent, and that roots all.
But there’s nothing insincere about the chip on Bell’s shoulder, the accumulation of doubt now calloused into healthy resentment.
Asked whether he gains motivation from the doubts about his past — the incessant belief that there are three better receivers on this roster, that his early-season production was unsustainable, that a scrap-heap basketball recruit could even ascend close to this level — Bell didn’t break verbal stride.