Just a year ago, Vonn Bell was still recovering from a torn MCL in his left knee and battling for a backup spot in a loaded Ohio State secondary heading into fall camp.
But after a season-opening loss to Virginia Tech, the former five-star recruit from Ridgeland High School, never one to back away from the spotlight, claimed a starting spot at safety and remained there for the next 14 games — all wins — as the Buckeyes rolled to a national championship.
As he prepares for his junior season, Bell — who remained in Columbus to work out and take two summer classes during the offseason — is widely recognized as one of Ohio State's top playmakers. He is ranked among the top overall defensive players in the Big Ten by Athlon and Phil Steele's preseason publications, and Bell is also on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back.
"I feel like that's what should be expected of me," the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Bell said recently. "My position coach told me I should expect to be one of the top defensive backs in the nation. That's what I've worked toward and that's how I have to believe in myself.
"But really this preseason is no different in how I prepare. I was a young guy trying to grab my role, now I'm trying to be a leader and a backbone of the defense. The next step for me is being more vocal and a communicator on the field."
Once he grabbed a starting spot, Bell led the Buckeyes with six interceptions (including four in his last six games), was second on the team with 92 tackles (57 solo) and had six pass breakups. His total tackles were the highest by a Buckeyes safety in 12 years.
"I would say Vonn is one of the best tacklers I've ever been around," Buckeyes co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said.
Although he had interceptions against rival Michigan and in the Big Ten title game, his most memorable interception came against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl — a semifinal for the first College Football Playoff — when he picked off a Blake Sims pass near the goal line late in the fourth quarter to prevent a potential game-tying touchdown. Moments later, Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott scored on an 85-yard run to put the game away.
Bell followed that with six tackles and a sack in the title game against Oregon, the 26th win of 29 games he has played in two years for the Buckeyes.
"I don't think I slept for two days after we won it all," said Bell, who added he gave both his Big Ten championship ring and the national championship ring to his mom for safe keeping. "It was a surreal moment. It's every kid's dream that plays the game of football, and we were on top of the world.
"I'll always remember how hard we worked to get there and how much we wanted to show the nation that we belonged in that bracket. Now we know this year will be even harder because we have that bull's-eye on our back. I'm one of the guys who has to step up and keep us focused on each game now."
Much the way he has moved swiftly up Ohio State's depth chart in less than a year, Bell also hopes that by this time next year he will be preparing for his first season as a professional player, admitting that much of the extra time put in over this summer with his position coach has been geared toward taking the next step.
He is currently on ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper's "10 to Watch" list of juniors who could be taken in next spring's draft.
"I think about the NFL," Bell said. "That's my plan, and I hope that's my future. It's what I'm working toward and dreaming of, and this year will be a really big year for me as far as that goes.
"But first I'm just thinking about that opening game (at Virginia Tech) being a tone setter for all of us. They took a chunk out of us last year, and we know the whole college football world will be watching. That's where it all starts."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 432-757-6293.