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Chris' Corner: Is Bell Ready?

Last season the quarterback play for Georgia State football was abysmal. Ben McLane started the most games and was the most effective of the group, which isn't saying a whole lot, and finished the season 139 for 274 (50.7 percent) for 1,592 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing 11 interceptions. Ronnie Bell played in 7 games and started two. He finished 34 of 67 (also 50.7 percent) for 522 yards and 3 touchdowns, but threw 10 interceptions.

Georgia State Quarterback Ronnie Bell. Photo Courtesy of Jason Getz/AJC.com.

Going into this spring it was assumed JUCO signee Clay Chastain would separate himself from the two others who performed so poorly last year. Chastain certainly has physical tools, but has far from grasped the starting job and frankly could take a redshirt to get the mental side of the game up to snuff.

Ben McLane has been his usual self. He checks down a lot, focuses on one receiver too often, and hardly ever checks out of bad plays. Instead, he is the most quick to simply throw the ball away. While that is a mature thing to do at times, you would like to see him try to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage to get the Panthers in a better position.

That is why Ronnie Bell is the favorite to start Friday night, despite the fact that Coach Miles refused that on Tuesday. Bell is the only quarterback that consistently shows the ability to check a route at the line of scrimmage based on the alignment of the defense. Furthermore, most of the time his checks work.

That ability to read the defense seemed non-existent last season as he threw an interception in 15 percent of his passes. However, if you look back at the games he played in last season, most of his interceptions did not come from bad reads, but rather trying to force a play with his team behind.

Bell went to high school at Sandy Creek where he had a 29-1 record and threw for over 4400 yards his last two seasons. Then he was redshirted while his Ohio Bobcats won 10 games, including a bowl victory. He was used to winning and came to Georgia State because he wanted to play closer to home, but also wanted to start.

It was painfully obvious how discouraged he was last season. I specifically remember how he connected with Albert Wilson on a long touchdown pass and then fell back sprawled on the turf... almost as if he was relieved. Every time he made a mistake he would bow his head and walk off the field, clearly disgusted with himself. But despite his struggles and being part of a losing team, he continued to force the issue and try to make plays. Unfortunately, that often led to more mistakes and further deficits.

Despite his struggles, Bell never seemed to have the deer in a headlights look out there that McLane had. Yes he can get happy feet and tends to rush his throws under pressure, but he also has good pocket awareness and the athleticism to elude pressure. What got Bell in trouble was how he responded when things went wrong. If someone made a mistake, Bell would force a throw and make matters worse. Against William and Mary Bell converted eight first downs (five by pass and three by run) and moved the offense well, but had five costly turnovers.

But a closer look at that W&M game shows exactly what I have been talking about. The opening drive GSU used a run heavy offense to get to the W&M 20 where they kicked a FG. When the next drive stalled, Bell tried to take a shot down the field and was intercepted. On the Panther's third drive Donald Russel fumbled, leading to W&M's first score of the game. Bell responded by either running or passing on seven of GSU's next nine plays. He clearly was putting it on himself to get the offense back on track, and was doing well until he forced a pass between two defenders and was intercepted. The interception did not lead to a score, however, that would when after the defense forced a three and out, Albert Wilson fumbled the punt. That costly mistake led to a late second quarter score and a 14-3 deficit.

So put yourself in Bell's shoes. Your two best offensive weapons have both made critical mistakes that resulted in points for the other team. After having success on the first drive, Russell's production has slowed. But, you are still in the game at halftime, a rare occurrence last season for GSU. He did what any leader would do... he tried to put the game on his shoulders.

On GSU's second drive of the second half they started on their own three yard line and Bell lead them 56 yards down the field, including a beautiful third down conversion on a pass to Williams that kept the drive alive. Then on 2 and 10 from the W&M 36 yard line, his protection broke down. He evaded two players, tried to step up and make a throw, and was stripped from behind and lost the ball. His demeanor off the field was complete dejection. The Tribe would go on to score to make the game 21-3.

On the subsequent drive the Panthers again moved the ball and Bell was having his best drive yet. He completed three straight passes of 11, 16, and 22 yards. Donald Russell was running the ball well. And then Bell converted a key third down with his legs that got the Panthers into the red zone for the first time since the opening drive. They looked poised for a score. And what happens? His center snaps the ball six feet over his head for a loss of 25 yards. After an incompletion on 2nd and 35, Bell threw his third interception of the game on a pass 40 yards downfield. Any momentum the Panthers built in that game would be instantaneously halted by a mistake of their own doing.

Bell's composure has to improve if he is indeed the starter going into Friday night. Georgia State's defense should be much improved in 2013 and could keep the Panthers more competitive. Bell's playmaking ability is evident any time he is on the field. The key for him is to not LOSE the game for his team by trying to force the big play.

That's where the mental side of the game that he has shown this fall comes into play. His ability to read the defense and check into a better play shows that he is ready to take that step. He will still rush a few throws, throw rockets at crossing routes 5-6 yards past the line of scrimmage, and likely will chuck an ill advised pass deep down the field on third down. Those are flaws that likely aren't going away so quickly. But his ability to move the chains with his arm or his legs were evident in that W&M game, and now it appears he has caught up mentally and is ready to take control of an offense in desperate need of some consistency from their signal caller.

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