A year ago at this time, Vonn Bell was just trying to fit in with his new Ridgeland High School football teammates. Now there are entire Internet message boards dedicated to him and where he might matriculate with his considerable talents.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior safety and receiver is ranked as high as the 19th best overall prospect in the country by 247Sports.com. He has more than 20 big-time scholarship offers -- big as in Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
His junior statistics were off-the-chart good: 180 total tackles, 119 solo tackles, five interceptions, three forced fumbles and three recoveries for touchdowns. He added 31 receptions for 487 yards and six touchdowns receiving and 280 yards and five scores rushing.
Those are video game stats, almost too-good-to-be true stats. Are half the tackles the kind you get for touching the pile of bodies already on the ground at the end of the play? Was the competition that bad?
So you find an online video that contains Bell's junior highlights and you get it the way Lane Kiffin got it. The Southern California coach reportedly needed all of 30 seconds of the video before he OK'd an official offer to Bell. The video was so strong that even though Bell had yet to attend a single prospect camp, he was getting Southeastern Conference offers by the handful.
"I guess there's some good stuff on it," Bell said laughingly, a smile spreading across his face as he took a brief break from a 7-on-7 passing league game. "Things have definitely changed in the last year -- gotten kind of crazy -- but it's all good."
While Bell has enjoyed the recruiting process, for the most part, Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis and his staff have honed their process of dealing with college recruiters. That has been something of a necessity with such prospects in recent years as current Oklahoma State defensive lineman Nigel Nicholas, Alabama receiver Mike Bowman and Georgia defensive back Devin Bowman.
The staff used to spend hours trying to piece together highlights to send out to colleges. Now, thanks to a digital editing program that does most of the work, the DVDs are put together in minutes and are more inclusive.
"It's a system where we tag plays throughout the season, and when the season's over we push a button and it spits it out," said Mariakis, who mailed out the 2011 DVDs shortly after the end of Ridgeland's season.
By the first week of January he had gotten a phone call from Georgia coach Mark Richt with Bell's first scholarship offer.
"The technology made that so much easier, and it really helps the kids and the college coaches," Mariakis said.
Earlier this month Bell attended Ohio State's camp and walked away with MVP honors. Urban Meyer's Buckeyes staff, according to recruiting services, made Bell their No. 1 camp priority and are hoping OSU makes his soon-to-be-pared list of possible schools.
"I'll be cutting my list to seven soon, but it's really wide open," said Bell, who has managed so far to keep his preferences secret. "It's a real tough cut with all these big-name places and coaches, so me and my family and the people who support me are going to sit down and talk about it."
If he hasn't made up his mind by then, Bell will do so at the Under Armour All-American game in January. Until then he plans to keep the Ridgeland highlight machine busy with what he hopes to be a memorable senior season. Everything switched in the last year.
"We're working hard to get ready for the season, and that's what I'm concentrating on right now," said Bell, who was eager to get back on the field in the waning moments of the 7-on-7 game. "Personally, I want to get stronger and faster and refine my technique to be the best I can. I'm not there yet."
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...
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