Nestled snugly in the comment section of Patrick's post today was a mention of former Iowa tailback Nick Bell, who terrorized opposing defenses in the early '90s before injuries cut short a promising NFL career. But mere words don't really do a player like Bell justice, and fortunately, there's a nine-minute highlight video of his on YouTube. It's not edited particularly well or anything, but it doesn't really need to be. Watch, and then a few observations afterward.
Yes, the Northwestern touchdown is in there twice. We mention that now because if we didn't, there would be at least three mentions of it in the comments from people who completely missed the point of this video.
One of the things it's important to remember about college football between 20 years ago and today is how far the bottom half has come to meet the top half. There isn't total parity and probably never will be, but the Big Ten used to be at least half pushovers, to say nothing of the sad sacks that populated I-AA and low-level I-A programs. So let's keep in mind the level of competition Bell's facing in most of these highlights.
That said, some of Bell's best highlights come against the best competition. Iowa made a game out of the Rose Bowl when Bell started to get moving in the second half, his demolition of the fifth-ranked Illini defense is forever a part of Hawkeye lore, and that screen pass against Miami was a thing of beauty. Watch the replay closely--before Bell breaks into receiving position, he absolutely levels a blitzing linebacker, which gives Rodgers just that little bit less pressure before getting the pass away. Then, of course, shredding the defense. So it's not as if this is all just one giant mismatch that Bell takes advantage of--far from it.
The immediate reaction an Iowa fan would have to watching Bell run through tacklers would be to call Bell the precursor to Shonn Greene, but in actuality they're very different running backs. Bell was a gifted receiver as well as blocker, and he frequently lined up as a fullback in order to get Mike Saunders (a more "traditional" tailback) on the field at the same time. Moreover, Bell played about 25 pounds heavier than Greene ever did, and didn't run with the same patience and vision that we've seen from Greene.
If anything, Bell was the precursor to Wisconsin's big backs: Ron Dayne, P.J. Hill, and John Clay all saw/see heavy workloads as heavy halfbacks for the Badgers, and it's probably no accident that Barry Alvarez went that direction--he left Iowa for Notre Dame right before Bell showed up, then left Notre Dame to lead Wisconsin right as Jerome Bettis showed up. Seeing the success both guys had at the collegiate level, why not get Ron Dayne in the backfield and have him wear down an opposing defense that probably featured at least seven players who were lighter than him?
It's not hard to see why Bell didn't last long in the NFL: you can't take that kind of contact on from NFL-caliber tacklers and expect to make it through 16 games a year, every year. In fact, going back to Bettis, he himself was in danger of running himself out of the league after just a couple years too. Fortunately for Bettis, he developed his footwork and learned how to avoid taking direct hits before he got too banged up to run. Bell didn't make that adjustment in time, and he was out of the league in a hurry. That's not a problem I see coming for Greene, for what it's worth; not only do the Jets have Greene splitting carries for the foreseeable future, but he generally saves the head-on contact for light-hitting defensive backs instead of trying to run over linebackers. Those are very good instincts, and for as great as it is to see Nick Bell planting MSU linebackers flat on their back, we wish he would have picked his contact a little more judiciously and spent a few more years making highlights in the NFL. So it goes.