By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- David Bell never takes his eyes off the ball.
He knows they're coming -- 11 defenders charging downfield with every intention of pulverizing him the moment he lays a finger on that football dropping end-over-end out of the sky toward his waiting hands.
Bell pays them no mind. He has a job to do.
"Probably one of the best punt returners -- fearless punt returners -- that we have ever had back there," Shenandoah football coach Paul Barnes said of Bell, a sophomore. "The guy just catches everything. Nothing seems to faze him. If that rush is breathing down his back, he just catches and gets nailed or he'll side-step one guy.
"He's gonna break one by the end of the year, I'm sure he's going to break one."
Bell hasn't yet, but then scoring return touchdowns has never been his primary focus. Catching that ball, securing it and making a positive-yardage play -- that's how Bell measures his success as a return specialist.
"That's why they have me back there at returner and even at the receiving position -- it's catch the ball and make people miss," Bell said. "That's mainly my job.
"... When I'm catching a punt or a pass, my main focus is the ball. And once I catch it, I make sure I protect it no matter what."
Protecting the ball, definitely -- but protecting his own health sometimes seems of less importance to Bell. No matter the situation, whether those gunners and wedge busters are two yards away or two feet, Bell is catching that ball and already preparing to run with it.
"For as little as he is, he's got a big heart -- that's all I can say," Shenandoah starting quarterback Corey Taylor said. "I've seen him on punt team; he never fair catches the ball, no matter how fast those people are coming. He'll get it."
Standing just 5 feet 9 inches and weighing 140 pounds, Bell sometimes evinces cringes from his own sideline with some of the seemingly reckless decisions he makes on returns. Almost always, though, Bell somehow slips past certain destruction and heads upfield to gain positive yardage. He has all 24 punt returns for the Hornets this season, averaging 6.2 yards per attempt with a long of 18 yards. Nearly every one of those 148 punt-return yards came at great personal risk.
"If I have to sacrifice [my] body, so be it," Bell said. "I know I'm helping out the team."
That rarely happens, as Bell's natural elusiveness most often leaves the first wave of would-be tacklers waving weak arm tackles in his general vicinity. Bell has speed, as well, plus quickness -- not the same thing -- in his arsenal.
It's a combination that comes in use all over the football field, not just in the return game (he also has two kickoff returns this season). This year, Bell has increasingly become more involved in the Hornets' offense. In last week's 42-21 loss to Hampden-Sydney, Bell logged plenty of time at flanker and came up with two catches for 81 yards.
So far this season, Bell ranks third on the team with 11 receptions for 192 yards (17.5 yards per catch). Bell doesn't know whether or not he's moving into a featured role opposite top wide out Qiydaar Murphy, and isn't concerned much about the possibility.
"I go out there, do my thing and perform 100 percent, all the time," Bell said. "It's really up to the coaches. If they put me out there, they know I'll try to get the job done."
That's the attitude that landed Bell the punt-return job in the first place. Despite having never returned a kick during his days at Maryland's Huntingtown High School, Bell drew notice from Shenandoah's coaching staff for his amazing knack for catching the ball. Two days before spring practice to start his freshman season, Bell got a phone call from then-Shenandoah assistant Tyrone Bell to gauge his interest in the return game.
By last season's opener against Stevenson, David Bell had won the job.
"He had nerves of steel, let's put it that way," Barnes said.
Bell admits he was a bit nervous at first, but that feeling soon passed.
"I had my first muffed punt in that game," Bell said. "Ever since then, it hasn't happened. I'm just focused on getting that ball and putting the offense in good field position."
Bell has been doing "his thing" on special teams ever since, hair-raising returns and all.
Occasionally, even Barnes shudders at Bell's fearlessness on special teams. But then, Barnes appreciates the fact that Bell "has saved us a boatload of yards" by refusing to let the ball hit the turf.
"He catches everything, and that's what you want a punt returner to do because once that ball hits the turf it can go anywhere," Barnes said. "He doesn't allow it to hit the turf. And we know once he catches it, something good's going to happen."
Bell just wants to contribute as the Hornets look to bounce back from a 1-6 start this season.
"There are some times where I should've just said, 'Man, I should have just called for the fair catch,' but I know the team is happy with what I do and I know they have full trust in me and I have full trust in them. The main thing is I want to give us the best field [position] that I can."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>