Villanova's Ryan Bell goes from walk-on to indispensable

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Villanova tight end Ryan Bell.

In Villanova’s last eight games, tight end Ryan Bell has had two touchdown catches four times. That’s about as much production as the Wildcats have gotten out of that position in the previous decade.

“I guess it is pretty impressive,” said the former preferred walk-on. “In my head, I always knew I could play here. I just had to earn the chance. Some schools were interested, but nothing ever happened. It was tough. I want to show the ones that passed on me what they’re missing out on.”

Bell played for Ridge High in northern New Jersey, where he was a captain on the team that won a North II Group 5 Stage championship when he was a senior. Even though he made all-state, he didn’t receive any scholarship offers — maybe because he weighed 215 pounds, instead of the 230 or so he goes these days. And he might not have been 6-2 yet. Or because the Red Devils used the Wing-T and didn’t throw very much.

“Compared to what he did in high school, we were like the run-and-shoot,” said Villanova wide receivers coach Brian Flinn, who recruited Bell. “I’d be lying to say I thought he was going to be the best tight end in the [Colonial Athletic Association]. Whenever you get a walk-on, you think he can do it. But he’s done it.

“We’ve had a history with guys like [wideouts] Kevin Gulyas and Poppy Livers. But his progress has been so much more accelerated than anyone else.”

The fourth-year junior had 29 receptions last season. Seven went for TDs. This year, he’s caught 16 balls for 285 yards and three scores, all team highs. And he’s doing it for a Wildcat team that’s ranked seventh in FCS heading into Saturday night’s dangerous CAA opener at Albany. Both are 2-1.

The best part is, last spring he was awarded a full scholarship.

“Everyone was happy for me, but I try not to look back,” said Bell, a finance and accounting major who plans to start working on his MBA. “I want to keep pushing to get better. I still have a long way to go.”

Maybe so, but pro scouts have started taking notice.

“It’s pretty crazy to think about that,” said Bell, who was also a good baseball player at Ridge, where he was a National Honor Society inductee. “That’s a dream of mine. But I know that’s way down the road. I would love to have that opportunity. But I’m focused on getting a championship this season.”

Since the start of camp, the Wildcats have lost four wideouts for the season because of injuries, making Bell’s contributions that much more valuable.

“If you watch the films, he’s the best player on offense,” Flinn said. “And he doesn’t say two words, never comes out, never misses a practice, all that stuff.

“He does receiver-level things. He wins 50-50 balls. He understands how to run a route. He’s a great blocker, which I don’t think gets appreciated much of the time. But we ask him to do a lot in the run game. He’s a lot faster than we give him credit for.

“Most of the time, he’s being covered by a safety, which athletically is a mismatch,”  Flinn said. “It’s hard to roll a coverage to a tight end. So the play-action pass has been really good to us.”

In last week’s 59-0 win over Lafayette, Bell had a career-best 119 receiving yards. He also tied a career-long with a 59-yard reception on Villanova’s first play. Like most of the starters, he sat out the second half.

Since the program returned at a different level in 1985 after a four-year absence, only one tight end has led the Wildcats in catches. That was Matt Sherry, who had 37 for 461 yards and five TDs in 2007. He was drafted in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals and played two seasons in the league.

“I think the tight end tends to get overlooked,” said Bell, who redshirted in 2014 before missing the final seven games the following year with a knee injury. “The big part is just making plays in practice. If you do that, they’re going to look to you in games. It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you keep making plays.

“I just had to keep my head down, keep grinding it out and pushing through it. Until it happens, there are times when you’re a little unsure,” Bell said. “They draw up a lot of plays that get me open. And we have other weapons in this offense. So there’s always somebody to go to.”