TERRE HAUTE —
When it comes to Indiana State senior running back Shakir Bell, the number that usually comes to mind regarding his value to the Sycamores is measured in the thousands.
As in the 1,475 rushing yards he amassed in 2012. Or the career-high and school record 1,670 he gained in 2011. He has 3,794 career rushing yards and needs just 541 yards to break Vincent Allen’s school rushing record.
But to determine the value of Bell — and the conundrum of ISU’s offense in 2012 — one must aim for a much lower number.
Think 40.5 percent.
That’s the percentage of times Bell touched the ball for ISU’s offense in 2012. Including incomplete passes, ISU ran a total of 715 plays in 2012. Bell had 269 carries, 19 catches and two pass attempts for 290 live touches. When incomplete passes are taken out of the equation, Bell accounted for 49.3 percent of ISU’s gains or losses from scrimmage in 2012.
The 40.5 percent of the load Bell carried was no Saturday drive in the park either. It was more like a street rumble.
The majority of Bell’s carries were between the tackles. Bell’s physical running style is such that it’s going to create violent collisions regardless of where on the field the carries went to, but Bell was particularly prone to gang-tackling by hungry Missouri Valley Football Conference defensive linemen, linebackers and safeties. The result was that Bell was injured in several 2012 games.
ISU coach Mike Sanford recognized the problem and will try to square the circle of depending on Bell, but not so much that it kills him.
“That’s a huge thing. That’s going to be a very important part of our game-planning and how we utilize him. Some of the ways we get him the ball will be in ways he doesn’t get multiple hits on him,” Sanford said. “When you’re in the box, you’re going to get a lot more hits. We want to get him in the open field and get him into one-on-one situations. I’ll bet on him in a one-on-one.”
Diversification of the attack will be crucial. Sanford said opponents will see Bell in several different looks and he’ll come from several different angles.
Will Bell continue to pound the ball? Yes, but he’ll also be on the receiving end of pitch-outs and screen passes. Bell might even line up wide on occasion.
“Initially our thought has been to do everything we can to utilize his talents, but also create a situation where people can’t completely focus on him,” Sanford said. “The one thing we have to do is use him as a total player. We’ll run, we’ll throw it to him, he’s going to be doing a lot of different things. He’s the guy. He’s where we’re at.”
This is all music to the ears of Bell, who has been rejuvenated at preseason camp after a punishing 2012.
“I’m a hard-nosed runner, I’m a downhill type of guy. I get the ball a lot. When coach Miles was here, I was getting the ball and heading straight down the middle. I’m happy that coach Sanford is here and that he’s going to use a lot of my talents,” Bell said.
“I’ll be able to show everyone I can catch the ball and get me in the open field for more one-on-one’s. However I can show I’m a talent anywhere I can be, I want to do it,” he added.
Depth behind Bell is also a key … and it might be the best he’s had in his career.
He is joined by three senior veterans in the backfield. Former Warren Central teammate George Cheeseborough has been with Bell, and vice versa, for every step of the way since 2010. Senior Taje High will return to the backfield after spending time as a wide receiver. Fullback Austen Wozniak returns and has been a valuable asset throughout his ISU career.
“George Cheeseborough is going to play a bigger role, Taje High is going to play a bigger role. Our new guy, Buck Logan [a junior college transfer from Sacramento City College], is a power back and he’s going to make a difference,” Bell said.
Bell is so enthused about his backfield teammates that he might have to keep the National Weather Service on-call.
“Taje is the lightning, Cheese is the thunder and I’ll be the storm,” Bell declared. “Our guys Woz and Jerry Stephen [who is moving from tight end] will come in and clean up the mess too.”
Sanford said Wozniak, who’s played a classic fullback role for most of his ISU career, will also see his role diversified.
“In the spread, we’ll do a lot of option and reading. I intend to see the ball more in the flats and running it. It should be a good year statistically for me,” Wozniak said.
While the priority is to use Bell’s talents for the good of the Sycamores, there is the subtext of his potential pro career to come.
Sanford has a recent template of sorts to use as a baseline for Bell’s future. Sanford was the offensive coordinator at Utah State in 2012 and had Kerwynn Williams among his charges. Williams rushed for 1,512 yards for the Aggies and was taken in the 7th round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
“[Bell’s] been a workhorse, a tough, physical back. But his future and the best way to utilize him for us is very similar to Kerwin Williams, who was drafted by the Colts, we for us last year at Utah State. Shakir is a better physical runner than Kerwin, who was more of a home run hitter,” Sanford said.
Bell’s mind is on ISU first, but he admits that it’s hard to think about fulfilling a dream.
“I’m focusing on this season and this season only, but of course, that whole thing is on my mind. I’m nearing the finish line and that goal has been in my mind since I was a 6-year-old kid running pee-wee football. It’s something I’m looking forward to, but I’m focused on the season,” Bell said.
A season in which ISU hopes Bell doesn’t have to absorb 40.5 percent of the punishment.
ISU running backs
Projected starters: RB Shakir Bell*, Sr., FB Austen Wozniak*, Sr.
In relief: George Cheeseborough, Sr.; Taje High, Sr.; Buck Logan, Jr.; Jerry Stephen, RFr.; LeMonte Booker, Fr.; Tyler Evans, Fr.; Dimitri Taylor, Fr.
Offensive coordinator: Brian Sheppard.
Position coach: Jayden Everett.
* denotes returning starter