SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The widely held assumption is that Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell will cut his career in East Lansing short and declare for the draft shortly after the Spartans play TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Saturday.
That’s not an unfair assumption. There’s evidence to suggest the junior has already decided to make the leap, and there would be plenty of good reasons to do gso. But when Bell talks about the looming decision, a deep, genuine love for Michigan State comes across, and it’s easy to see he’s still torn about his future.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, Bell says he remains 50-50 on his decision, but if it ends up being his last game in green, Bell wants it to be a grand finale.
“First of all, I want to make sure we come out victorious,” Bell said Thursday. “I want to make sure we win the game, but individually I want to go out there are and work hard and run like I’ve never run before.”
Though Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio certainly wants the nation’s third-leading rusher back in 2013, he too would like to see a big performance from Bell if it’s to be his last game. And Dantonio got specific.
“About 300 yards and secure a win,” Dantonio said without pause.
That would be a new best for Bell, who put up a career high 266 yards in Michigan State’s last regular-season game, a 26-10 win over Minnesota. But whatever Bell’s numbers, he will no doubt be central to the Spartans’ attack when they take the field at Sun Devil Stadium looking for a second straight bowl win.
Bell has been the crux of the Michigan State offense this season, averaging 137.33 yards per game and surpassing 200 yards in a game three times. He finished the regular season with 1,648 total yards and 11 touchdowns on 350 carries.
Opinions seem to vary a bit on how Bell hurts opponents most, but TCU has put the emphasis in its bowl preparation on effective tackling in hopes that its defense can bring the 244-pound Bell to the ground enough to limit his impact.
“He’s a real powerful running back, and he’s got some moves on him,” TCU defensive end Devonte Fields said. “He’ll go right through you, and he won’t go down easy at all. You’ve got to wrap him up. You go in there with an arm tackle, he’s not going down.”
Added TCU coach Gary Patterson: “If you’re not a good tackling team, you’re in trouble. … He fits his hole, and when he gets going he’s hard to stop, so we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Teammates say it’s Bell’s patience and awareness that hurt defenses most. Fellow running back Larry Caper said Bell’s foresight sets him apart from some of college football’s other top backs.
“He always has a plan,” Caper said. “Most guys who run the ball run hard north and south, downhill, just let their instincts take over. He does that also, but when he’s in the open field he always has a plan for the defender, whether it’s a stiff arm, a spin move, a juke — and he never runs out of bounds.”
Whatever Bell’s strengths, the Spartans want him back next year. With a strong, young nucleus around junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State ought to be in line for a much more successful season than this 6-6 one, which included five losses by four points or fewer.
But players and coaches know Bell has to weigh both sides. Bell said he took time at home during Michigan State’s pre-bowl break to discuss with his family the benefits to staying and going.
“I got a better idea of the pros and cons to both situations,” Bell said. “There’s a lot of records I could break individually. As a team, we could still go to a Rose Bowl or even (win) a national championship.”
And the cons?
“Maybe I come back and I get injured,” Bell said. “And, of course, there’s money involved. You can do what you love to do (in the NFL) and get paid for it.”
But as enticing as a professional contract might be, it’s hard for Bell to imagine the end of his Michigan State career.
“Leaving this university would be such a hard thing to do,” Bell said. “And leaving my teammates — man, those guys mean everything to me, and I couldn’t be anything without them.”
Dantonio said he doesn’t have a sense of what Bell will do. Perhaps he’s playing coy, but the coach insists he’s seen nothing from Bell in practice to indicate he’s distracted by the decision he must make.
Should Bell decide to return, Dantonio believes he would be in the initial Heisman Trophy conversation and would remain in it as long as the Spartans could keep winning. Dantonio has said he’d have plenty of work for Bell if he’s back in 2013, and that prospect has to be tantalizing.
“I used to work for Earle Bruce (at Ohio State), and he used to always say, ‘You cannot starve the horse that pulls the load,'” Dantonio recalled. “(Bell) is the horse.”
Perhaps Bell has already decided what he’ll do. And if he has, it’s probably that he’ll make an early exit. Had he already decided to return, it would have been easy to quiet the peripheral chatter about his future by simply saying he’d be back.
But maybe Bell truly isn’t sure if he’s ready to end his college career. Perhaps he’s realized you only get to play college football once and isn’t sure he’s ready to give up the camaraderie he has with teammates.
Either way, there’s one more factor to weigh: his performance in Saturday’s game. Bell called it his potential “last interview” for the NFL, though the scouting combine would await him. Still, Bell realizes he might be playing his last game as a Spartan, and he’s ready if it’s his curtain call.
“I’ve thought about that,” Bell said. “I’ll play like it’s the possibility of my last game — run every run like it could be my last.”