NORMAN — Blake Bell signing with Oklahoma was more ballyhooed than Sam Bradford or Jason White, two in-state kids who would win the Heisman.
Before Bell arrived on campus expectations were high. Extremely high.
Big, athletic, mobile with a cannon arm, Bell was ranked as one of the nation's top quarterbacks in the 2010 class.
But like most freshmen quarterbacks, Bell needed time to learn the nuances of playing in a highly sophisticated, up-tempo offense.
"In high school you're just slinging it around," Bell said. "It's a lot easier sitting at home watching the game on the couch. You knew coming in that it wouldn't be a walk in the park, that you would have to work for it."
Landry Jones, a Heisman candidate this season, can relate to everything Bell has experienced. Redshirting isn't easy. Waiting your turn isn't easy.
“You come in as a hotshot. You get thrown into the fire, and you honestly don't know how to play anymore,” Jones said. “It seems like your mind locks up. You forget how to throw the ball. A lot of young quarterbacks can get overwhelmed. Blake has come a long way.”
Has Bell come so far he will be Jones' backup this season?
OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will decide this weekend who will be the backup — Bell or Drew Allen.
It's a big decision. The player Heupel chooses will be the leading candidate to start next season if Jones opts to leave for the NFL.
Allen, a sophomore, has a year's more experience and was Jones' backup last season.
Bell, a redshirt freshman, produced mixed results in the spring game. He has shown vast improvement during two-a-days. Heupel said that's typical.
“Whenever I get a kid that's a true freshman, after his first spring he's remarkably different when you get him back for fall camp,” Heupel said. “He's had a chance to make mistakes, watch them, learn from them, rehashing those things all summer on film. They're more confident, more assertive.”
Countless hours watching film and countless sessions with wide receivers the past four months helped Bell take a major leap forward during two-a-days.
"We did a lot of throwing in June and July, almost every day with the receivers," Bell said. "After you throw so much it becomes a habit. My ball is coming out a lot nicer. And film work. Knowing when you're hot (facing a blitz), where people are coming from, helps a lot.”
You often hear athletes say: “The game slowed down.” That's exactly what happened for Bell this summer.
“That first year, when I ran the offense, I saw a bunch of jumble,” Bell said. “At this level, the game is a lot faster. In the spring game I was starting to get there. It really was the first time I had played since high school. Now I'm a lot more comfortable.”
Bell isn't a slam dunk to leapfrog Allen on the depth chart. But Bell knew the competition would be stiff when he signed with OU.
Still, Bell knew he most likely would sign with the Sooners. His uncle was an OU fan who turned his nephew into an OU fan. Bell grew up watching the Jason White era, followed by the Sam Bradford era.
Wanting to follow two Heisman winners factored into his decision. But it was a Heisman runner-up, Josh Heupel, OU's quarterback coach, when he signed that outweighed all other variables.
"He was a big, big factor," Bell said. "That's who I'm going to be around the whole time I'm here. I tell everyone to look at all the things he's done with the quarterbacks here. And what he did. He won a national championship. He knows what it's about and how to get there."
Now the question is who will follow White, Bradford and Jones. Will it be Allen or Bell?
OU's 2009 season opener is a constant reminder the decision is important not only for the future, it could impact the season.
Bradford suffering a shoulder injury two years ago against BYU did more than torpedo a season filled with high expectations. It was a reminder the backup quarterback is one snap away from leading one of the top programs in the country.
Regardless when Bell takes his first snap, Jones predicts his protégé will be ready.
“Blake has come a long way from where he was as a freshman,” Jones said. “He's big. He's tall. He's athletic. He's a good prospect who will have a big future here.”