SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — What if Vonn Bell had been given an earlier chance to show what he could do on the back end of Ohio State's defense?
The junior All-American, first-team All-Big Ten performer and soon to be NFL Draft pick, said he weighs that question often.
"It's lingered in my mind," Bell said Monday, stationed at a Fiesta Bowl media table at the Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort. "But it wasn't my time. I was a young guy. Had a lot to learn. I wasn't ready yet."
Specifically, Bell spoke about the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes, in the midst of a 24-game winning streak in Urban Meyer's first two years in Columbus, ran into the buzzsaw of the Michigan State Spartans in Indianapolis. Quarterback Connor Cook decimated Ohio State's secondary for 304 yards and three touchdowns—one that went 72 yards to Keith Mumphery—in a 34-24 Michigan State victory.
Bell hardly played in that game, instead standing and watching behind seniors Corey "Pitt" Brown and C.J. Barnett despite being the crown jewel of Meyer's first recruiting class—a five-star prospect from Georgia.
"A lot went through my mind," Bell said. "I wish I could have been out there locking these guys up. I was like, 'What's going on?' But it's time tested, it's a timetable. Gotta wait for your turn and wait until your number's called."
Bell said he didn't think the 72-yard bomb to Mumphery would have happened in the Michigan State game if he had been on the field, but admits he was just a young guy anxious for a chance.
“I had confidence. When you have a young guy, you're going to have growing pains anyways so go ahead and throw him out there and get him acclimated to the environment.”– Vonn Bell
"I was making plays in practice, but as a young guy you tend to get the calls and signals wrong like, 'What's that? What's going on?'" Bell said. "Try to remember everything and everything's going so fast-paced and you're trying to slow it down. But, it happens.
"I think I was ready. I really do. I was just eager. I was ready to go."
Bell heard his number called in the final game of that season, a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl nearly a month later. He made a spectacular one-handed interception of Tiger quarterback Tajh Boyd early in that game, but defensive coordinator Luke Fickell also wants to make sure he remembers what else happened that day against the likes of future pro wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant.
"He gave up a big pass play in the Orange Bowl, he might not remember," Fickell said with a smile Monday. "He did have an opportunity. But that's beside the point. There are growing pains with young guys."
Watkins was unstoppable that day in Miami, snagging 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Bell did get beat deep once in that game, part of the growing pains that come with playing as a freshman, like Fickell said.
Bell, though, still felt like he was ready to go earlier that season.
"I had confidence," he said. "When you have a young guy, you're going to have growing pains anyways so go ahead and throw him out there and get him acclimated to the environment."
Whether or not it would have made much of a difference in 2013 is unknown because no one can go back and play those games again. Bell won't say he's leaving for the NFL yet, but is all but out the door after helping bring a Big Ten and national title to Columbus last season.
He's an All-American and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back after a stellar 2015 season. He's ready for the next step.
Now, as he looks back at his time in the scarlet and gray, he just wishes he had been able to do more.
Ohio State DC Luke Fickell talking about Vonn Bell's urge to play and help Ohio State as a freshman: pic.twitter.com/VCDiE01uyX— Eric Seger (@EricSeger33) December 28, 2015
"I think that's the thing, and every guy toward the end of their career starts to look back and say, 'What else could I have done? How could I have done more? How could I have done this? What could have got me more prepared?'" Fickell said. "We (as coaches) do the same thing."
But if Bell had been given a shot sooner, he thinks he would have came through in the 2013 season.
"We would have won the Big Ten Championship. That's what I think," Bell said. "But it was not my turn, it's the coach’s decision."