Ronnie Bell grips the straps on his backback and smiles. He’s asked about recruiting rankings.
“Stars, I mean,” he says with a noticeable snarl. “Can’t always pay attention to stars.”
A year ago, Bell was a two-star basketball recruit, committed to play at Missouri State. There was an itch to play football, the sport he’s always preferred, but the interest wasn’t mutual.
“Every week I attacked high school football with everything I had because I was trying to earn a scholarship from somebody,” Bell said Tuesday evening. “But nobody wanted anything to do with me.”
What a difference a year makes.
Saturday against Maryland, Bell caught a pass over the middle and ran for a 22-yard score — his second touchdown of this season in which the freshman receiver has played in all six games.
After the game, Bell spoke to a long-time friend via text about just how far he’s come in such a short time.
“He was like, ‘Man, a year ago today I was on the sideline talking to your dad about you playing basketball at Missouri State. Now you just scored a touchdown,’ ” Bell recalled. “Just crazy to think how much it switched.”
He’s far ahead of where anyone could have predicted, and in the process is stomping all over those who doubted him. Bell saw early in one-on-one drills in fall camp he could compete at this level. Soon after, the rest of the team took note as well.
Sophomore receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins were among the first to see it.
“A lot of people learn, especially once you get here, stars aren’t anything once you’re here,” Bell said. “Once DP, Rik and Nico, all them realized I can play, they all took me under their wing and were willing to build me up.”
Black and Collins were four-star recruits. Peoples-Jones was a consensus five-star.
But Bell says nobody helped him out more than senior receiver Grant Perry. Each day after camp, Perry and Bell would go back to the hotel and act out plays in the room.
“We got the freakin’ couch and pillows all set up and I’m running around lining up,” Bell said. “He got me right over fall camp.”
Bell was hungry — maybe moreso than your average freshman. This was as much about proving to himself that he made the right decision as any external validation.
It’s still not lost on Bell just how close he was to a starkly different path. Had Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh not stumbled upon his tape through his brother-in-law, Bell might well be playing basketball at Missouri State or football at a far different level. When he finally decided on football, there were schools in contact with him — his hometown Division-II Northwest Missouri State being one — but certainly no program the caliber of Michigan.
When Harbaugh and the Wolverines came calling, though, the decision became easy.
“It was a dream come true,” Bell said. “It made me feel a lot more better about my decision, of course. I want to play football, I want to prove to everybody I could play football. Coming in, it was like now I’m really going to show y’all.”
Bell has indeed shown everyone.
Few have taken more pride in Bell’s success than Director of Recruiting Matt Dudek. Dudek and the coaching staff received some backlash shortly after Bell’s commitment from fans questioning the commitment.
Bell was off everyone’s radar. So when Michigan offered, plenty of skepticism followed.
After both games in which Bell has scored, against Nebraska and Maryland, Dudek has taken to Twitter to gloat.
After his 56-yard touchdown against the Cornhuskers, Dudek tweeted “Zero-star Ronnie Bell #FromTheSideline #GoBlue #Winningest”
After Bell’s score against the Terrapins, Dudek tweeted “Man, if only Ronnie Bell had more stars, ugh #GoBlue #Winningest”
Harbaugh also spoke approvingly of Bell’s performance against Maryland, offering a comment unprovoked in his post-game press conference.
“How about my guy, Ronnie Bell?”
There’s still plenty of room to improve for Bell, who has three catches on the year. His skill at receiver remains raw, despite the glimpses of talent. But for Bell, Dudek, Harbaugh and all involved, the first six games of Bell’s career are a recruiting triumph, with the potential for much more on the horizon.
“I just came in humbled,” Bell said. “I was ‘the basketball guy’ to everyone. My goal was to show everybody I could play football. For me to start out this way, it’s a great thing, great feeling.”