By JOEL COLEMAN
Devon Bell is back where it all began.
Three years ago, Bell burst onto the scene as a true freshman at Mississippi State, making 14 of his 21 field goal attempts on the way to breaking the school record for most points scored in a single-season by a kicker.
The following year, after also inheriting responsibilities on the kickoff and punting units, Bell’s placekicking struggled to the point that by 2014, he was no longer kicking any field goals. Now preparing to start his senior year, it looks like that might be about to change.
While last year’s kicker, Evan Sobiesk, has moved on, giving up football to pursue a career in dentistry, a familiar face has emerged this fall as MSU’s potential placekicker.
“I’m very comfortable with it,” Bell said. “It’s a role I’m really eager to take on right now. I feel like the team is going to need somebody this year obviously. So I’m stepping up. I have really good competition right now. Bryce Brown and Westin Graves are doing a tremendous job, so day in and day out, I’ve got to bring my ‘A’ game. If I don’t, I may not be kicking field goals this year so I have to come every day ready to go.”
Though Brown and Graves are pushing the veteran, Bell would seem to have the edge based on experience alone. Brown, a redshirt freshman walk-on, has yet to see game action at MSU. Graves did see limited action for the Bulldogs last season in his true freshman campaign, but missed his only field goal try while going 4-of-5 on extra point attempts.
Meanwhile, Bell has attempted 35 total field goals in his Mississippi State career, making 20. He is also 68-for-70 on extra point attempts.
Adding to that, Bell has a history of performing on the big stage, something that Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen believes is a tremendous help as Bell seeks to regain his old role.
“He’s an older guy,” Mullen said. “He made a (47-yard) field goal in a New Year’s Day bowl game so I think when you have that to go back on, hopefully it’s just like riding a bike.”
Bell says positive thoughts, like the freshman-year kick he made in the Gator Bowl that Mullen mentioned, are key to recapturing his skill.
“It’s just trying to remember all the good kicks you had,” Bell said. “You try to get that muscle memory back to when you hit a really good kick in a game.”
If Bell is to win back his placekicking duties, his role might not end there. He’s still actively involved in a competition with sophomore Logan Cooke for punting and kickoff responsibilities, which the two shared at points during the 2014 season.
According to Bell, he and Cooke are neck-and-neck for the spots. He says both are consistently kicking the ball into the back of the end zone on kickoffs while also maintaining a close race to be the punter.
Bell says there’s no animosity at all between Cooke and himself as they battle. In fact, he says going head-to-head is actually making them both better.
“We just push each other,” Bell said. “Even when we’re not punting with the team, we’re always having competitions. Day in and day out, it’s a friendly competition. If he hits a great ball, I congratulate him. If he mishits a ball, I’ll tell him what he did wrong and he’ll correct it and it’s the same thing with him back to me.”
No matter who ends up taking charge in the kicking and punting competitions, Mullen says he feels confident in all the special teams units.
“Both of our kickers have experience coming back,” Mullen said. “Our long snapper (Winston Chapman) is returning. Logan Cooke has kicked off, punted and even attempted a field goal in a game. Devon Bell has punted, kicked off, and kicked field goals.
“So there’s some experience in the kicking game. They’re a little bit older and a little bit more mature. So we feel pretty good about the special teams game for us.”
The main concern for the Bulldogs might surround Bell. The last time he had multiple responsibilities, his kicking game took a hit. Should he win more than one job, will he have the ability to manage it all? Bell says it won’t be a problem now, as he’s a much more mature football player.
“I’m more mentally stable for it now,” Bell said. “A few years ago, it was a lot – going out there for a field goal and then going out there for a punt, then having to kick off. My mind was just going all over the place. Now I’m just in one mindset. I’ve just got to get the job done.”