Brandon Bell, a linebacker at Oakcrest High School in New Jersey, decided between committing to one of two coaches earlier this month — neither with more than a few months of head coaching experience.
Rutgers was closer to home, and Greg Schiano had left to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Scarlet Knights promoted assistant coach Kyle Flood to replace him in an unstable Big East conference.
Meanwhile, Penn State was in the middle of a major leadership change. New head coach Bill O’Brien had overhauled last season’s assistant staff, save for two coaches — linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden was one of them.
“The new faces were new faces to me anyway,” he said. “I didn’t know the old faces.”
In the end, it was Vanderlinden's face, and experience, that registered with Bell.
“Knowing his resume and what he’s done since he’s been there and who he’s coached, I think that really played a big part in Brandon’s decision making,” Chuck Smith, Bell’s high school coach, said. “Once Vanderlinden came down to see him the first time, I guarantee you Brandon went on the Internet to research the guy.”
Bell and Smith came to Happy Valley the Tuesday before the Blue-White game. As they sat in Vanderlinden’s office, he played them a video of what it means to be a linebacker at Penn State. Bell saw the names of players like Dan Connor, Paul Posluszny and Navarro Bowman and he was sold.
“When I watched that video, it made me pumped up,” he said.
Bell had been recruited by premiere educational institutions including Stanford and Northwestern. He said graduating with a strong degree is a high priority for him.
But Vanderlinden explained to Bell how Penn State would provide the best of both worlds, academically and athletically.
“Coach Vanderlinden told me that at other schools, you have to settle for that the football team may not be as strong as the academics, or vice versa,” Bell said.
Smith added that Vanderlinden’s assurance was backed up by everyone they met on their trip to Happy Valley before Blue-White weekend, “even the guys down in the equipment room.”
Bell’s soft-spoken demeanor won’t take away from his performance in the classroom, but as a linebacker at Linebacker U, it takes a certain aggressiveness to succeed.
His ESPN scouting report gives him 3-stars, praising his size and athleticism. "[Bell's] playing speed and strength are best suited for the outside linebacker position at the major level of competition," according to the report.
But whether he’s studying textbooks or opponents, this very “laid-back” linebacker is usually the one laying ball carriers on their back using his 6-foot-1, 224-pound frame.
“He’s got God’s gift, athletically,” Smith said. “He takes whatever it is, absorbs it, and really puts it to play on the field.”