Two of the most important plays Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell has made in his already-impressive career didn’t result in touchdowns. But they helped win two road games — and arguably saved their respective seasons.
Play No. 1: In Nebraska’s comeback win at Michigan State in 2012, Bell drew a late, controversial pass-interference call while working against Darqueze Dennard. It was a questionable call — though I’ve argued I would have thrown the flag — but what can’t be disputed is that Bell beat Dennard off the line of scrimmage, and having that step was crucial in creating the impression that Dennard interfered with Bell. A small victory at the start of the play led to a big one. If Bell doesn’t draw that flag, NU is kicking a 37-yard field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime instead of winning it.
Play No. 2: Fourth down at Michigan. Bell catches a short out pass from Tommy Armstrong for a first down. But Bell doesn’t stop with a first down. He dances past Wolverine defenders without going out of bounds and gains 26 yards, inside the 10-yard line. If Bell doesn’t keep the play alive after the first down, does Nebraska really chunk out a few more first downs? Or does the drive stall?
Bell also has established himself as Nebraska’s best pass-catching option on first and second downs. He has been an early-down, quick-strike, play-action weapon in coordinator Tim Beck’s offense. Beck uses Bell’s speed and ability to find open space when teams don’t expect it.
Consider the early-down, big-chunk plays throughout Bell’s career:
» 42-yard catch vs. Fresno State, 1st-and-10
» 50-yard catch vs. Washington , 1st-and-10 (first play of the game)
» 82-yard reverse vs. Minnesota, 1st-and-10
» 30-yard TD catch in Capital One Bowl vs. South Carolina, 1st-and-10
» 36-yard catch vs. UCLA, which set up NU’s first score, 2nd-and-1
» 42-yard TD catch vs. Arkansas State, 2nd-and-6
» 25-yard TD catch vs. Arkansas State , 1st-and-10
» 68-yard TD jet sweep/pitch pass vs. Idaho State, 1st-and-10
» 37-yard TD catch vs. Northwestern, 2nd-and-2
» 74-yard catch in Ohio State game 2nd-and-17
» 36-yard TD catch in Minnesota game, 2nd-and-5
» 42-yard catch vs. Minnesota 1st-and-10
You’ll notice the list was much smaller in 2013. The 42-yarder — which set up Nebraska’s first touchdown and was the last truly significant pass Taylor Martinez threw in his Husker career — was Bell’s longest gain in 2013. And it was little surprise that the pass was delivered by Martinez, the man who’d thrown to Bell for three years. Martinez, like his OC, had a taste for the big play. Like his OC, Martinez knew which receiver was most likely to produce said play. Bell.
Bell — who came into last season hoping to reach 1,000 yards for a season — had 52 catches for 577 yards in 2013. That 11.1-yard average was 6.2 yards less than his 17.3 yards-per-catch average in 2012. Bell played through pain and injuries last year that were more serious than what he experienced in 2012. That would account for some of the drop. The need to develop a new chemistry with Armstrong and Ron Kellogg would account for some of it, too.
Bell’s 2013 stats
» In games started by Martinez: 19 catches, 215 yards, 2 TDs
» In other 9 games: 33 catches, 362 yards, 2 TDs
» “Martinez-start” stats stretched over 13 games: 62 catches, 700 yards, 6.5 TDs
» “Other start” stats in 13 games: 48 catches, 522 yards, 3 TDs
Translation: The difference in Bell’s production with Martinez, and his production with Armstrong-Kellogg, was about two games’ worth of numbers.
This is not uncommon. Consider the drop in production Niles Paul took in 2010 when Martinez beat out Zac Lee and Cody Green for the starting job:
And the drop Terrence Nunn took in 2007 in the switch from Zac Taylor to Sam Keller-Joe Ganz:
Paul, a dangerous outside receiver, didn’t fit as well with the play-action-minded strengths of Martinez, who was better attacking the middle of the field. Bell is dangerous in the middle of the field, so much so he could make a very good slot receiver in the NFL. He benefited from Martinez’s run threat and the Huskers’ power game.
Bell’s dip coincided with Quincy Enunwa having one of the best seasons in Husker history, the kind of year that, with all the tumult of 2013, crept up on fans. Enunwa had one less catch than Bell but 196 more yards, half of which came on the 99-yard touchdown pass in the Gator Bowl. Where Enunwa made hay — in part because Nebraska needed him to make more hay — was on third down. He caught 17 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns. Five of those catches went for more than 25 yards.
Over his career, Enunwa has been Nebraska’s top third-down target:
Compare those numbers with Bell’s production:
And to Paul:
And to Brandon Kinnie:
And finally, to Kyler Reed:
The difference is that Kenny Bell has a final year. Enunwa’s and Paul’s freshman seasons were fruitlessly burned redshirts. Kinnie had three years after his transfer from junior college. Reed didn’t catch any third-down passes in his redshirt freshman year.
Bell will be targeted a lot this year — late in games and likely on later downs. But it’s worth asking whether Beck can find those “chunk” plays that made Bell so dangerous in 2012, especially when defenses, at least initially in 2014, will figure to cheat their coverage toward Bell in an effort to see if Sam Burtch, Taariq Allen, Jordan Westerkamp and Jamal Turner can do much about it.
Bell can still beat corners on fly routes, and he can adjust midair to below-average throws, as he did on a third-down, 38-yard touchdown catch in the 2013 Michigan State game. In spring practice, Bell’s savvy and speed more than once beat NU’s bracket coverage to the end zone, and Armstrong throws a good deep ball once a guy is open. I’d like to see Bell working in the slot — as he would occasionally next to Enunwa and/or Kinnie — but that depends, to some extent, on outside receivers who haven’t proven they can make it worth Beck’s while to put Bell in the slot.
NU also has to reignite its play-action game without the home run running threat of Martinez to hold linebackers and safeties for a split second. One reason the pistol formation exists is to make the play-action remain viable, and running back Ameer Abdullah has proven adept at finding the crease on outside power plays.
Whether Bell gets as many chunk plays in 2014 as he did in 2012, his third-down catch rate is heading north this year. He’s shown he can make plays on that down; the attention he’ll get from whoever is throwing the ball will bear that out.
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