The dream of playing college football initially took California native Reggie Bell from his hometown of Los Angeles to a much different place at Eastern Michigan.
After two up-and-down seasons, Bell left EMU last spring and landed about 200 miles northwest at Division II powerhouse Ferris State. Now the redshirt junior is attempting to replace Jason Vander Laan, a two-time winner of the Harlon Hill Trophy presented to the nation’s top Division II player.
Vander Laan finished with the most career rushing yards (5,953) and second-most rushing touchdowns (81) by a quarterback in NCAA history at any level. Last season he led Ferris State to an 11-1 season and a second straight Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship and Division II playoff appearance.
“Those are huge, huge shoes to fill, but I try not to look at it like that,” said Bell, whose seventh-ranked Bulldogs (3-0) play fifth-ranked Ashland (3-0) Saturday in ASN’s Division II Game of the Week. “If I’m doing my best, that’s what really matters. I think my teammates can see that I’m doing my best to fill those shoes.”
The 6-foot-3 Bell, a devoted shoe collector with an estimated 60 pairs of sneakers, is walking just fine on his own two feet so far at Ferris State. On the season he ranks 25th nationally in total offense (890 yards), is fifth in the GLIAC in rushing yards (271) and has accounted for eight touchdowns (five passing, three rushing) for an undefeated top-10 team.
After accounting for three touchdowns — highlighted by a 73-yard scoring run — in a 41-0 blowout of Ohio Dominican to open the season, Bell has guided the Bulldogs to fourth quarter comebacks on the road in each of the past two games.
“I didn’t give him anything,” Ferris State coach Tony Annese said of his dual-threat quarterback after the Ohio Dominican win. “He took that starting opportunity, and it just progressively happened.”
Two weeks ago in a 30-28 win at Michigan Tech, Ferris State marched 45 yards in eight plays with barely a minute remaining behind Bell to set up Wyatt Ford’s 36-yard winning field goal with seven seconds left. Bell threw three picks in the win but also passed for 242 yards and one score and rushed for 151 yards and two TDs.
In last week’s 27-26 win at Northwood, Bell helped the Bulldogs cover 53 yards in the final 2:20 on a 10-play drive, which was capped by his 5-yard TD pass to Jajuan Pollock with no time left. It was their school-record 28th straight regular-season win dating back to 2013.
Bell, the older brother of Washington State freshman receiver Renard Bell, passed for 223 yards and two TDs in the record-setting win.
“It was definitely special to be part of something like that,” Bell said. “I’d never thrown the winning touchdown at the end of a game. To pull it out like that in the final seconds is something I’ll never forget.”
Bell started his collegiate career on a high note at EMU, where he signed in 2013 after accounting for 2,200 yards and 21 TDs as a senior at Dorsey High in L.A. He redshirted as a freshman and decided to stay despite the firing of EMU head coach Ron English late in the season.
The following season Bell started eight games — including the final six — and was one of seven FBS quarterbacks to lead his team in both passing (1,297) and rushing yards (562). He accounted for 13 TDs and nearly 54 percent of EMU’s offensive production and set a single-game school record for a quarterback with 202 rushing yards in a win against Buffalo.
His four TDs against Buffalo tied another school record. In a loss at Ball State, Bell passed for 409 yards and three scores and rushed for 101 yards to finish with the second-most total offensive yards in EMU history.
Bell opened the 2015 season as EMU’s starting quarterback but suffered a fractured jaw in the first game against Old Dominion. After missing five games, he returned to play at No. 22 Toledo before leaving that game with an ankle injury. He transferred after playing in only seven games during that injury-filled season.
“I really wasn’t happy there,” Bell said. “I had been recruited by a different coaching staff, and I just wanted to go in a different direction.”
Bell, who signed with EMU in part to experience life away from home, wanted his next stop to be in the Midwest. Ferris State ended up being the perfect fit for him.
After four years in Michigan, Bell is finally used to cold weather. He also enjoys the slower pace compared to life in southern California.
“I don’t regret going to Eastern Michigan because going there taught me to grow up being on my own for the first time,” Bell said. “Going to Ferris State was the best decision for me, too, because I’ve found a place where I’m really happy and surrounded by guys who are like family and coaches I can talk with about anything.”
Known for his keen fashion sense, Bell is eager to play this week with his Ferris State teammates against GLIAC rival Ashland in a televised matchup between two of the top teams in Division II.
“One of the reasons we play college football is for the chance to play on TV,” Bell said. “This is a huge opportunity. We’re going to do our job, take what they give us and most of all have fun. We play football because we love it and have fun doing it, and this is going to be one heck of a game.”