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Purdue Offensive Player to Watch: Wide Receiver David Bell

Bell has already put up two legendary performances against top-5 opponents this season. The Buckeyes will need find a way to limit his effectiveness, if they hope to avoid the same fate as those previous teams.

If Ohio State defenders see the back of Bell’s jersey often, it could be a long day for the Buckeyes
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Purdue Boilermakers come to Columbus this weekend, and you know what that means: upset alert. Regardless of record, championship aspirations, or likelihood, Purdue lives to upset better teams. The Boilermakers infamously gave the 2002 Buckeyes a scare, before Craig Krenzel connected with Michael Jenkins for “Holy Buckeye”. In 20018, Purdue dog-walked Ohio State in late October, derailing OSU’s National Championship hopes. They also won this matchup in 2000, but both teams were ranked… Forget these guys (substitute whatever language you want).

Holyyyyy Buckeye!
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Boilermakers don’t just make a habit of upsetting the Buckeyes. In mid-October, they knocked off No. 2 Iowa, which was their ninth (!) win as a program over top-two ranked teams (as an unranked team themselves). This past weekend, they took down No. 3 Michigan State. They are, quite frankly, giant killers… sometimes. Let’s not act like this is a yearly thing. That being said, because of the upset track record alone, they will continue to lurk as a viable threat. Making them even more of a threat, is the fact that they are a legitimately solid football team this year. At 6-3, they have to be taken very seriously.

The Boilermakers are making some noise this year, primarily due to the play of two – I’ll say it – stars. Wide receiver David Bell is one of those stars, and a player who has been criminally underrated on the national level. All he does is go out an put up 100 yards consistently, against the opposition’s best cornerback and/or coverage scheme. He should be a first round NFL draft pick, and if teams at the next level need to be convinced, they would be wise to put on his tape against any of the stout defenses in the Big Ten. Bell is this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.

If not for Ohio State’s Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson (maybe Jaxon Smith-Njigba as well), there would be precisely two candidates for best wide receiver in the Big Ten. Excluding Buckeyes, the argument comes down to Penn State’s Jahan Dotson and Purdue’s David Bell. For my money, it is David Bell all day. I am even willing to hear the argument that Bell is the best WR in the conference, including Ohio State Buckeyes. He is that good, and he has been that consistent during his time in West Lafayette.

Another local product out of Indianapolis, Bell was named 2018 Gatorade State Player of the Year in Indiana. He was recruited by a few college football bluebloods, including Ohio State. The OSU staff extended an offer to him in December 2017, and he made multiple visits to Columbus. In the end, Bell chose to stay home and attend Purdue. I’d say “what could have been”, but the possibility of Olave, Wilson, Smith-Njigba, and Bell on the field at the same time honestly breaks my brain.

Despite the lack of Purdue’s team success, Bell has done just fine for himself. He belongs in the same category, deserving the same respect, as the OSU wideouts. As a true freshman in 2019, Bell hit the ground running. He finished with 86 catches, for 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns. He also added a rushing touchdown. The Boilermakers had three explosive pass catchers on the roster, but Rondale Moore was limited to only three games. Tight end Brycen Hopkins was also one of the better TE’s in the country that year, but it was Bell who stole the show.

Purdue had a dreadful running game in 2019; like truly awful (83 ypg). Opposing teams knew that the Boilermakers would only be able to move the ball through the air, and they were still unable to stop Bell. He was named a Freshman All-American, Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Big Ten Freshman of the Week four times, and tied for the conference lead in catches… and he came off the bench for three games. His first collegiate catch was a 49-yard touchdown, so maybe we should have seen this coming.

During the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Bell was just as good — if not better. In six games, he recorded 100 or more yards in four of them. He averaged nine catches per game, and more than one touchdown per. His total stat line read 53/625/8. Moore again only appeared in three games, so the outcome may have been different, but as it stood, Bell totaled more yards and touchdowns than Purdue’s second and third-highest receivers combined.

Lather, rinse, repeat: Bell has been great in 2021. Through eight games, he is once again averaging more than 100 yards per game (1,003 total), and has nearly triple the total of the Boilermakers’ second-leading receiver (368). A one-man band with a target on his back, and Bell continues to ball out. In Purdue’s upset of Iowa, he committed a heinous football crime against the Hawkeyes. He racked up 240 yards on 11 catches and one touchdown against a team that had up until then, shutdown all of their opponents.

The Hawkeyes would love nothing more than for Bell to declare for the draft immediately after the season, and never suit up against them again. In three games, the junior receiver has totaled 36 catches, 545 yards, and five touchdowns against Iowa. He was just as lethal against Michigan State, putting up 11 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown. In just those two games, against the second and third-ranked teams in the country, Bell has 22 catches for 457 yards and two touchdowns. He has more yards against numbers two and three, than the next most productive WR on his team has all season! I see some David vs. Goliath parallels that are just too obvious here...

Due to the way the schedule has played out, Bell has not yet gone up against the Buckeyes during his Purdue career. Ohio State will get their first in-person look at the star wide receiver on Saturday, and they will likely come away impressed. But despite the stats and Bell’s reputation, he is oddly not mentioned in the top-5 at his position — at least when it comes to draft stock. We’ve seen great college players fail to translate to the next level, but Bell certainly passes my eye test.

He has solid footwork, above average route running, good/not great speed, and outstanding body control. My guy makes awkward catches look easy, and I’ve seen him come down with plenty of contested balls. The knocks on him are that he occasionally struggles against press coverage, and he does not have the most sophisticated route tree. That’s fine. Give me a guy who has the talent and ability to average 100 yards per game for his career, in the Big Ten, as the primary weapon for his team’s offense.

If Bell is able to have a big game against Ohio State, and the Boilermakers were to upset the Buckeyes, he would complete perhaps the greatest three-game stretch against big-time opponents that a wide receiver has ever had in college football. That is not hyperbole. But here’s hoping that OSU coaches and players have learned from his performances against Iowa and Michigan State. Three top-five teams can’t all be torched by this same guy, right? Right?