With what will likely be a hectic year of recruiting still ahead of him, Vonn Bell's rising stock reached an early zenith with one impressive phone call Wednesday. While high school seniors were busy signing national letters of intent, Ridgeland's junior safety received his second official offer in less than a month, this time from the head coach of the reigning national champions.
On his way to lunch, Bell was told to meet Panthers coach Mark Mariakis in the weight room, and when he arrived there, his coach handed him a cell phone without tipping who was on the other line. Once Bell recognized it was University of Alabama coach Nick Saban's voice on the other line, he admittedly became a bit more nervous.
"He just said that they really liked what they saw of me on film and wanted me to play for them," said Bell, who earlier in the month got an offer from Georgia. "I mean it's Nick Saban calling to say he wants you to play for him, so it does mean more. Especially knowing how busy he was with signing day. That really tells me how much they want me. It was hard not to say 'Roll, Tide.'
"It definitely puts them up there on my list by making me feel like a priority this early. I'm blessed to have the two offers I already do, but I just want to see what all my other options are and review it with my family before I say anything."
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Bell had 119 tackles, intercepted five passes, caused three fumbles and returned three of his five fumble recoveries for touchdowns in the 2011 season. He also had 31 catches for 487 yards and six other TDs. During offseason workouts, Mariakis said Bell was timed in 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
But while he has two SEC offers, Bell is still awaiting word from the one school he wants to hear from. He said he grew up a Tennessee fan, but several attempts by Mariakis to contact UT coaches have been unsuccessful. The lack of correspondence from Knoxville has been especially frustrating for Mariakis, who said UT was one of the 20-plus schools to whom he sent video. He said he has called the Volunteers' football offices twice, but hasn't heard back.
"I'm not bad-mouthing them. They're busy and we're just one high school, but I just want to know if they have any interest at all," Mariakis said. "That's the frustrating thing. Here's a kid who is interested in them and makes no secret about that and who is a no-brainer as far as talent, character and grades. We would just like a return call to let us know if they're interested or not.
"He has never gone to a single camp, so nobody knew about him before we sent out the highlight DVD. But now he's getting big-time offers from coaches who have never seen him in person, just on film. To get a major D-I offer means you're awfully good, but for the head coach of the defending national champs to offer you personally, that just says how special you are. Coach Saban said it only took a couple of plays and the whole staff was sold on him."
Shortly after transferring to Ridgeland from Central High last summer, Bell informed Mariakis he would have to miss a couple of early workouts because he had previously committed to attend an FCA Leadership camp.
Mariakis said the DVD he sent to every SEC and ACC school included both defensive and offensive highlights and that both Saban and Georgia coach Mark Richt said they would let their coordinators fight over which side of the ball Bell would play if he signed with their program.
"He's just that talented that he could make an impact on either side of the ball," said Mariakis, who has former players currently on the rosters at Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Oklahoma State. "He's the best we've ever had here. The things that separate him are his speed to the ball, his ability to lay a lick when he gets that and his knack for making the sure tackle. Tackling is almost a lost art because so many guys try to just knock people down, but Vonn locks up and drives them backward. He finishes the play, and he's also very dangerous with the ball in his hands.
"He's a quality kid as far as his character and has that inner drive to want to be better on the field and off."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...