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NU Football Practice, 10.23.2012

There was this sign at the Nebraska game last Saturday, the handiwork of a college student with a message he was sure the masses needed to know.

"Can't cover The 'Fro!'" the sign proclaimed.

For much of the day, that seemed entirely accurate. Minnesota simply could not cover Kenny Bell. He caught nine passes for 136 yards. He scored two touchdowns.

And then the Husker sophomore wide receiver walked into the postgame interview room and didn't make a big deal about any of that.

Only now was The 'Fro covered. Bell wore a bucket hat.

"The hard work is really coming to light and that's a good feeling," he said, seeming the least impressed of anybody in the room about his day's work.

The conversation moved on to other topics. But let's bring it back for a moment to Bell's mention of hard work, and see where it's leading him.

Because, it may be leading him to one of the best, if not the best, statistical seasons in Husker history for a wide receiver.

"I think he believes he's really good. Not in a cocky way, but in a very confident way," said wide receivers coach Rich Fisher. "I think he feels like it doesn't matter who he lines up against, it's going to be a long day for you."

In other words, just what a receivers coach wants.

Fisher could not have known what he had in Bell when he met his receivers for the first time after joining the Husker coaching staff last season.

His first thought: "Skinny kid with big hair."

"I had no idea," Fisher said. "I think when you look at him, you sit there and say, 'Well, this is the Big Ten.' You look at Quincy (Enunwa) walk in the room, you watch Steve Osborne walk in the room, and then you see Kenny walk in the room. Obviously, it's a good thing that first impressions aren't necessarily lasting impressions, you know."

That is a very good thing.

Just look at the numbers.

No Husker receiver has ever had a 1,000-yard receiving season, but Bell could challenge that milestone, especially if Nebraska plays three more games.

Meeting that mark will take some doing, but Bell already has 44 catches for 789 yards (17.9 yards per catch). NU's single-season record for most receiving yards is 942, set by Johnny Rodgers.

It's not just the yards, Fisher said. He thinks the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Bell is one of the toughest players, pound-for-pound, that he's been around.

"He takes a beating, but he delivers a beating," said Fisher, pointing to a catch Bell had going across the middle last week. "He gets knocked down, but I think the most important thing is that he held on to the football. He wasn't worried about his body. He was worried about getting the first down."

Husker coaches seemed to know they had a recruiting steal even two years ago when Bell was working on the scout team. What the receiver lacked in bulk (he probably weighed only around 160 pounds that year), he made up for with speed and the kind of dynamic plays that had former defensive coordinator Carl Pelini predicting big things for Bell.

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The natural athletic gifts were always present, but Husker coach Bo Pelini said the receiver from Boulder, Colo., has grown into more than just a playmaker. Bell has emerged as one of the team leaders.

"He really has become a leader and not only because he's a guy that's not afraid to open his mouth and speak up, but kind of the daily approach in every area of his life right now," Pelini said.

Just ask those former military members who visited Lincoln during the offseason and put Nebraska players through an intense two-day exercise called "The Program."

They asked Bell to lead his teammates in one of the challenges -- one of the hardest challenges they had.

It was a water drill in which Bell had to get a group from one end of the pool to the other, then out of the pool, then in a uniform line to do another specific drill.

It was hard. Many smart and athletic people had struggled with the challenge over the years.

"It was very taxing mentally," Fisher said. "He had to communicate all the way down the pool. He had to get everybody across the pool, everybody in a line. And if everything wasn't in order, they had to start over. And I just remember at the end of the segment, Kenny did something that the guy said in all the years of doing 'The Program,' he was the first one that stood out to him."

Everyone else who had ever done the drill had put themselves in the front of the group to lead.

Because leaders always stand in the front, right? Not always.

"Kenny was the first one to learn that the best leader is the person that gets behind the group and pushes them forward," Fisher said. "He was the last one in the water, making sure that everybody was through the pool and up. He just did it naturally.

"I think if you talk to Kenny, just that whole process for those two days was really life-changing for him in a lot of ways, in terms of him feeling confident in who he is as a person, in terms of him feeling confident in what a leader is."

Bell's calm demeanor no doubt helps, too.

It was Bell who drew the pass-interference call late in the game at Michigan State (controversial as it may be), setting up the game-winning touchdown.

As a commotion broke out around him, as Spartans shouted their case and as boos rained down, you might have noticed Bell calmly walking back to the huddle as if he hadn't just been involved in the biggest play of the day.

And when Minnesota defensive backs were chirping at Bell last Saturday, Fisher noticed the Gophers struggled to get a verbal response from the receiver.

"I think actions speak louder than words if you were to ask Kenny," Fisher said. "I think he really relishes those guys that kind of talk. I think in his mind, it tells him that they probably have a little fear maybe, a little doubt of who they are."

By the end of the game, those Minnesota defensive backs had few words.

Bell's actions had spoken loud and clear.

Perhaps those cornerbacks had learned the truth of the words on another sign in the stadium that day.

That sign's message: "Fear the 'Fro!"

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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