SPARTANBURG Byron Bell went undrafted in 2011 out of New Mexico, which isn’t exactly a football factory, started at right tackle his rookie season, has missed one game in three years and will get first crack at left tackle Friday night.
That’s an unlikely result from a difficult path, but Bell has a chance to be the Panthers’ starting left tackle for the 2014 season. Even though it’s football, the story is one many hard-working people can relate to.
“Byron is a self-made guy,” Carolina offensive line coach John Matsko said. “He came in with the right attitude, worked his butt off and it’s America. He earned a job. He earned a starting job.”
Bell, 25, has the chance to claim the coveted left tackle position after the retirement for three-time Pro Bowler Jordan Gross. With good, consistent play in the first two exhibitions, Bell will start in Week 1 of the regular season.
He faces a familiar opponent Friday in the Buffalo Bills. Last year Bell had one of his worst games as a pro against the Bills and defensive end Mario Williams, and he hasn’t forgotten about it.
Bell gave up 31/2 sacks in the game that has become part of his narrative. Friday is his first chance to change that.
“It’s been brought up around the world but I’m not worried about that,” Bell said. “I’m going to block him up. I’m pretty sure all eyes will be on me.
“I feel like this is a good time for me to really showcase my talents and let people know that I’m for real. This is going to be the year for me to go out here and show people what I got.”
Bell’s talents took him from Greenville, Texas, to the University of New Mexico. After going undrafted, the Panthers signed him the first day of 2011 training camp.
When Jeff Otah went down with one of his many injuries, Bell won the starting right tackle job and never relinquished it. He has protected quarterback Cam Newton from the right side his entire career.
Haunted by Bills
Everyone has a bad game, but the Bills game has haunted Bell.
Williams had 41/2 sacks – all but one coming against Bell – as the Bills sacked Newton six times in their last-minute 24-23 win.
After the game, Bell said it “wasn’t a match that difficult” and that he had “played against better guys.” The game led to him getting heckled by fans for his performance, and it was a common reference when he was first being considered as Gross’ successor.
Bell bounced back from that game and didn’t give up a sack against the Giants in the following week’s 38-0 win. For his performance, he received a game ball.
“They’re going to have bumps and stuff like that in the road,” coach Ron Rivera said. “The biggest thing is how we react when we have those problems. I think he’s going to be OK.”
Rivera said he thought Bell was unfairly criticized after the Bills game. He pointed to former Seahawks left tackle Andy Heck as an example.
In 1990 in his second season, Heck allowed five of Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas’ record-setting seven sacks. Heck had a fruitful 12-year career.
Matsko said the game against Buffalo made Bell better, and “that’s the determination that you like in a football player. That’s the determination Byron Bell has.”
During Sunday’s exhibition against the Giants, the Bills lined Williams up against New York’s right tackle for the first series. That’s where Williams mainly was against Carolina last year, so there might not be a rematch. But Bell is prepared for Williams to come to his side.
If not Williams, Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes will go against Bell. The two played against each other when Texas Christian dismantled New Mexico in 2008 and 2009. Hughes was an All-America selection and considered the best defensive end in the country.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll flip flop because (Williams) might want to come over there and try me out again,” Bell said. “If the guy comes over, I’ll just do my job and protect.”
Improving during offseason
When Bell was at right tackle, Gross would be left on an island to go one-on-one with an opponent’s top pass rusher. Now, that responsibility falls on Bell.
He’s worked in the offseason to get better technically. Matsko said Bell has become a much better run blocker while Bell has also focused on anchoring himself.
Against the Bills, Bell had trouble initially getting his hands on a quick and athletic Williams, who would rush around him rather than through him. If Bell can latch on to an end, he has a better chance of winning the battle.
“I feel like I’m making good initial contact, but I bounce off and that’s what gets me a lot,” said Bell, who signed his restricted free agent tender this offseason for $2.18 million.
“I’ve been trying to get more firm – when I make contact, instead of getting pushed back, holding him forward and keeping the fight at the line of scrimmage. And I’m going to lose some of the battles, but I’m going to win more than I lose.”
During summer workouts and training camp, Bell has flip-flopped from left to right tackle with fellow undrafted lineman Nate Chandler. Rivera said he wouldn’t do that Friday night so both players can settle into their positions.
With the opportunity to be the franchise left tackle, Bell has also been tasked with more leadership duties. Last week in camp, Rivera asked him to break the guys down before practice.
Bell shouted at his teammates about the faith he had in them as they huddled around midfield. He then performed his Omega Psi Phi fraternity dance before the Panthers went on to have their best practice of camp to that point.
“He has so many different reasons for him to give up and say this isn’t for me, that could send him back to his hometown in Texas,” Newton said. “Yet Byron is a strong individual that is very persistent at what he does.
“When you see the clip of him breaking us down before practice, that’s Byron Bell. He brings so much to the locker room with understanding, hard work, determination and being resilient with his dreams and goals that when an opportunity like this presents itself in being the starting left tackle, it’s water on a duck’s back. It doesn’t bother him and he just keeps going.”
Bell has repeated he will play wherever the coaches put him – be it left or right tackle – but he recognizes there are more responsibilities as the left tackle.
He’s ready to take those on, and if he succeeds, maybe there will be a different narrative for him.
“I hold myself accountable for a lot. I feel like it’s my duty to anchor this line,” Bell said. “(Center) Ryan Kalil’s the veteran up front – he’s the Pro Bowl, All Pro guy – but I feel like if I can learn from him, one day I’ll be one of the top left tackles in this league. Then, everybody can change their perspective of Byron.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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