The Belldozer: A Journey to the NFL from Play-Caller to Pass-Catcher

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Nobody gets used to a 5:00 a.m. wakeup call. Blake Bell awoke to his alarm screaming at him earlier than any college junior wants to crawl out of bed. But there was work to be done, and Blake was already behind the competition. A few weeks prior, Blake made the decision to change positions. No longer would he fight to become the Oklahoma Sooners starting quarterback. He was now a tight end, one with a lot of catching up to do before his senior season in 2014.

And so the workouts began. Blake, along with graduate assistant Joe Jon Finley, arrived at the Sooners practice facility in Norman, Okla., well before any of his teammates. They watched film of the NFL's best tight ends, most notably Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots.

Blake then moved to the indoor field to run routes. Players weren't allowed access to turn on the lights, so Bell trained in the dark, aided by merely an emergency light. The transition wasn't completely unfamiliar as Blake played wide receiver during his freshman year at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Wichita, Kan. But once Bell made the switch to signal-caller as a sophomore, he wasn't just a quarterback, he was the quarterback.

Blake's high school resume included state passing records, a Gatorade "Player of the Year" award and an invitation to the esteemed "Elite 11" football camp.

So, how did Blake go from a blue-chip quarterback prospect to a tight end selected in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers?

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Life as a Sooner

Blake began his time at Oklahoma in 2010 behind then-starter Landry Jones, who is now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Blake knew going in he'd have to work hard and wait his turn. That, however, didn't stop head coach Bob Stoops from making good use of Blake's 6-foot-6 frame.

As a redshirt freshman and sophomore at Oklahoma in 2011-12, Blake was used as a short-yardage and goal-line quarterback. He thrived in the role, accumulating 24 rushing touchdowns in two seasons. Blake's success in the red zone earned him a sweet nickname, too. He was known as "The Belldozer."

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"The nickname started with the media my freshman year," said Blake, who scored four rushing touchdowns against Baylor that season. "The media came up with three ideas and ultimately landed on 'Belldozer.' The fans caught on and it stuck."

When Jones graduated before the 2013 season, Blake thought it was his turn to lead the Sooners. But at the same time, a talented freshman quarterback by the name of Trevor Knight entered the mix at Oklahoma. Knight, a smaller but faster signal-caller, performed well enough to spark a full-fledged quarterback competition in spring practices.

Eventually, the week before the team's season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Stoops gave the freshman the nod. It was a crushing blow to the entire Bell family, which was eager to see Blake lead the Sooners. Blake's cousin had even changed the date of her wedding in anticipation of Blake's first collegiate start at quarterback.

"It was devastating to Blake and to us," said Mark Bell, Blake's father. "Blake worked so hard and he felt like he paid his dues. It was a hard thing for him and our family."

Despite the initial disappointment, the redshirt junior got his chance three weeks into the season. An injury to Trevor Knight opened the door for Blake to start against Tulsa. Blake powered the Sooners to a 51-20 victory, throwing for 413 passing yards and four touchdowns.

South Bend was the next stop on Oklahoma's schedule for a road game against Notre Dame. Starting against the Fighting Irish was a dream come true for the Catholic-raised quarterback. Blake starred again, leading the Sooners past the Irish, 22-21, throwing for 232 yards, two scores and no interceptions. It was Oklahoma's first win against Notre Dame since 1956.

Blake remained the starter until a concussion forced him out of Oklahoma's eighth game of the season, a contest against Iowa State. Once again, the keys to the offense belonged to Knight. The merry-go-round continued into the Bedlam football game against Oklahoma State.

A combination of injury and poor play from Knight and another Sooners quarterback Kendal Thompson gave Blake the chance to play hero. Down 24-20 on the road in Stillwater, Okla., Blake threw a 7-yard, game-winning touchdown to Jalen Saunders with just 19 seconds remaining in the game.

The heroics would be the last snaps Blake would take as Oklahoma's quarterback.

During the three-week hiatus between the Oklahoma State game and the Sugar Bowl against then third-ranked Alabama, Stoops decided to give his freshman signal-caller the start. Knight led Oklahoma to a 45-31 victory over the Crimson Tide, turning in a 348-yard, four-touchdown performance to take home the game's MVP award.

"We knew right then that something was going to have to change," Mark Bell said.

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Becoming a Tight End

Mark stood still, almost stoic, as he cracked an obligatory smile. Amidst the ecstasy surrounding them, the Bell family couldn't fully join the Sooners fans lost in the euphoria of Oklahoma's marquee win.

"It was hard. I really had to force myself to be happy about it," Mark Bell said. "It's something you can only explain if you have your own son out there who went there to play quarterback and knowing that maybe that was the last time he'd ever play quarterback. That was hard to swallow. It was bittersweet."

With Knight poised to be the Sooners full-time starter, Blake was faced with two options. He could graduate and transfer for his final season of eligibility, just as Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson did with his move from North Carolina State to Wisconsin. Behind door No. 2 was the opportunity to change positions and finish his career at Oklahoma.

Blake chose the latter.

"What you appreciate as a coach and as a team guy, he didn't want to graduate and transfer somewhere else for one year," said Stoops in a recent phone interview. "He's like 'Shoot, this is my team.' You've got to love that. Anyone would love that attitude. He wanted to finish with his guys here at Oklahoma."

With the 117th in the NFL Draft, the 49ers selected TE Blake Bell out of Oklahoma

Fortunately for Blake, when you're 6-foot-6, 250-plus pounds, you have the build to play on either side of the football. He can thank his football pedigree for that. Mark, who is also tall at 6-foot-5, played tight end at Colorado State and got drafted by the Seahawks in the fourth round of the 1979 draft. Blake chose to become the second tight end in the family and began his transition as a pass-catcher, a decision that Stoops anticipated.

"I had already thought about it, just because of his size and ability as an athlete," the OU coach said. "He's a heck of an athlete with really good size, and he has excellent hands."

Blake's senior campaign was unspectacular from a statistical perspective – 16 receptions for 214 yards and four touchdowns. But Stoops saw promise.

"I think he has a great upside," Stoops said. "He's only played tight end for roughly eight months, so I think he's going to progress well in that position."

That upside earned Blake an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine in February. There, "The Belldozer" shined in Indianapolis, posting impressive marks. His 40-yard dash time of 4.80 seconds ranked fifth among all tight ends in attendance, his 20-yard shuttle time of 4.32 seconds ranked second and his 60-yard shuttle time of 11.81 seconds also ranked second.

The pre-draft hype machine began to ramp up on Blake's outlook as a professional. NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock listed Blake as his third-ranked tight end in the 2015 draft class. Once again, Stoops had no doubt Blake earned the praise.

"He's a guy that can do a lot of things. His blocking will only get better the more he does it," Stoops said. "He's always been a physical and tough guy. It's one of those things that just takes time to keep working it. He's such a big target and has such good hands that quarterbacks like seeing him down there.

"He's got the smarts. He's a team guy. That's what NFL guys look at."

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An NFL Dream Comes True

"With the 18th pick of the fourth round, number 117 overall, the San Francisco 49ers select Blake Bell, tight end from Oklahoma," country music superstar Kenny Chesney said as he announced the pick live from Levi's® Stadium.

Back in Wichita, the Bell family celebrated at home. Mark congratulated his son, who had truly followed his footsteps. Both father and son were fourth-round picks, but Mark still made sure to jab Blake about being selected one pick earlier than his son, the 17th selection of the round.

The journey might not have been the one Blake mapped out, but it's hard to argue with the result. Blake started at two positions for a top-10 college program, scored 40 total touchdowns and earned himself an opportunity in the NFL.

When asked what the 49ers got in Blake, Stoops raved about his ability to feel space on the field. Bell's days of being a quarterback give him keen spatial awareness skills and the ability to diagnose coverages before the play. His biggest improvements, Stoop said, will come in run blocking and pass protection.

Fast-forward two months and Blake has now completed his first offseason program as a professional football player: a rookie minicamp, three weeks of OTAs and a three-day veteran minicamp.

"It went well," Blake said. "It's one of those things where I'm trying to get my feet wet and get the offense down. I'm having fun with it, learning from veteran guys, watching them and seeing how they're playing. I'm just soaking it all in."

Blake calls his tight ends coach, former Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders head coach, Tony Sparano "a great teacher." At one OTA practice, the tight ends were working on a red-zone drill from just outside the 10-yard line. One specific route called for a 12-yard out, with the ball already on it's way before the tight ends got out of their break. As Blake made his way into the end zone, he got his head around at 14 yards instead of the desired 12-yard mark. The ball sailed past him, followed swiftly by Sparano's meticulous critiques of Blake's mistake.

"It's all about the fine details," Blake said. "It's the difference between a touchdown and an incompletion."

Sparano is refining Blake's aptitude as a pass-catcher, but the restrictions on offseason practices made it much more difficult to improve as a blocker. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, all contact is strictly forbidden during the offseason program. The roadblock didn't stop Blake from putting in as much work as he could within the league's guidelines.

"It's a lot of technique," Blake said. "Even if you have pads on, it's still all technique too; having your feet in the right spot and your hand placement coming off the ball. There's still a lot of work you can get done."

What Bell has accomplished in under a calendar year is special. To switch positions, learn a new role and still get drafted in the fourth round is a monster achievement. It not only exemplifies his natural athleticism, but confirms his dedication to fulfilling his potential.

"To see where he's come in such a short time playing tight end, and then to get drafted in the fourth round, we couldn't be more proud of Blake," Mark said.

The former Sooner now finds himself as a part of a crowded tight end corps. The 49ers are carrying eight at the position on their current 90-man roster. That means Blake's work is far from over, and the competition is only going to intensify once training camp begins.

But you don't need to tell him that.

"I'm happy to be here. It's one of those things where you get an opportunity to play in the NFL, and that's been a dream of mine ever since I've been very young," Blake said. "Now I've got to keep working and keep fighting to help make it a reality."

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