Blake Bell was late coming out of the locker room. He had been in an ice bath, recovering from Oklahoma's Tuesday scrimmage.
"It gets more physical each day," he said.
Of course, Bell is used to contact. For the past three seasons, he's been a quarterback for the Sooners in both starting and complementary roles. For his first two seasons, he was a backup to Landry Jones and used almost exclusively in the so-called "Belldozer" package for short-yardage and goal-line situations.
So, yes, Bell knows how to take a hit. Listed at 6'6" and 264 pounds, he knows how to deliver one as well.
But Bell is looking for a different kind of contact now—as a tight end.
The position switch followed Oklahoma's 45-31 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. That's when fellow quarterback Trevor Knight lit up the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with 348 passing yards and four touchdowns, cementing himself as the favorite to start heading into spring.
Knight had already beaten Bell once for the starting job last August, considered at the time a major upset in its own right. This wasn't how it was supposed to be for Bell, the presumed successor to Jones.
With Knight riding momentum into spring, Bell had a decision to make.
"I thought to myself it's either go somewhere else and see if I can play quarterback or stay here and finish my career as a Sooner, see if I can get on the field," he said. "I talked to my parents and my family. I just thought it was best for me to stay here and finish my career.
"I love this place. The university, the fans, everything."
Transferring has become a trendy move for quarterbacks recently, especially ones who complete their undergraduate degree. Michael Brewer transferred from Texas Tech to Virginia Tech this offseason; Max Wittek transferred from USC, but has yet to announce a destination.
Oklahoma even got in on the quarterback carousel. Another Texas Tech transfer, former walk-on and starter Baker Mayfield, joined the program this spring. (Mayfield will sit out the 2014 season and forfeit a year of eligibility, making him a junior in 2015.)
The chance to immediately play elsewhere as a postgrad can be an attractive incentive to move on, to make the most of the final year or two of eligibility. Make no mistake, Bell thought about it.
"If that's what they want to do, that's great," Bell said, "but I wanted to stay a Sooner. I've had a great career and a good time here.
"The grass may not be greener on the other side, either."
In his fifth and final year at Oklahoma, Bell is starting over.
The former 4-star dual-threat quarterback prospect has a new position coach, tight ends coach Jay Boulware, new meetings to attend and new responsibilities. He's a rookie in veteran's clothing.
It's an interesting dynamic. Oklahoma has a young offense after losing players like running back Brennan Clay, center Gabe Ikard and receiver Jalen Saunders. That means Knight, with only eight game appearances and five starts to his name, becomes the look-to leader.
Yet, the Sooners still have Bell—just in a different role. Adjusting to that role is something Bell felt comfortable doing.
"Learning the playbook is coming easily," Bell explained. That makes sense, since he's been studying it for four years as a quarterback.
|Year||GP-GS||Rushing Yards||Passing Yards||Total Touchdowns|
Bell attempted only 20 passes in his first two seasons with the Sooners, completing 10 for 115 yards. In eight starts in 2013 while filling in for the injured Knight, he threw for more than 1,600 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions.
"As a quarterback, you have to know what everyone is doing—the offensive line, receivers, running back, tight ends, yourself, the defense," Bell diagrammed. "Once you switch positions, you have a smaller portion of that."
A smaller chunk of the playbook doesn't mean playing tight end is easy. Though it feels like a natural move given Bell's size, it can be easy to forget that he's learning all the intricacies of a new position for the first time. It's not just about catching passes.
"It's technique and blocking, hand placement, hips, the location of your feet," Bell said. "Each day I try to get better at one specific thing."
It is, however, "fun," according to Bell, who seems to genuinely love football and all of its positions. It may also be that he's found a home where he can be successful and put his large frame to good use.
"He looks natural there," head coach Bob Stoops praised. "Being a former quarterback, he has a natural feel for space and what the quarterback is looking for."
Bell's decision to stay at Oklahoma was about attitude.
Blocking is about attitude.
And blocking is an underappreciated part of being a tight end.
Sure, there's the route running and pass catching—Bell played a little wide receiver in high school—but a crucial part of playing tight end is looking for contact, whether on the line or split out.
"It's a major part of running the football," Stoops said. "Everyone sees the running back and thinks it's all because of him. No it isn't; it's because of what those guys do up front."
Oklahoma was a better at running the ball in 2013, which was a departure from the pass-happy offenses fans have come to know in recent years. Within that run-heavy scheme were two styles: Bell's power running game and Knight's shiftiness, which was better suited for zone-read and option plays.
Regardless of the play-calling, the success of an offense starts up front with the offensive line and the tight end.
"When you don't have that [tight end] out there," Stoops said, "it makes it tough against certain defenses."
Stoops admits there aren't many Jermaine Greshams running around. Gresham, an All-American and Mackey Award finalist who played for the Sooners from 2006-09, was the gold standard for that position because he could catch and block.
The Big 12, not just Oklahoma, hasn't had a playmaker at tight end quite like Gresham since then.
Bell isn't trying to be Gresham, but he is learning to be a complete player. As B/R's Matt Miller tweets, the move to tight end is what could ultimately help Bell get into the NFL.
Definitely improves his chances of an NFL career. RT @graham0307: In your opinion was Blake Bell's switch from QB to TE a smart one?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 25, 2014
"I'll split out, catch balls and block outside. Then I'll split in, catch balls and block inside," Bell said. "So it's a happy medium. When you learn both, you can be a real threat."
Bell was willing to switch positions, but is he willing to get in some facemasks? Above all else, blocking is a matter of want-to and effort. It's a mindset, one that may not happen overnight.
"Not having had the experience blocking will be the biggest thing that we'll concentrate on," Stoops said of Bell.
Bell has already sought blocking advice from senior fullback Aaron Ripkowski, a guy he's been running behind for the past three seasons.
It's a work in progress. Bell admitted with a laugh that he hasn't pancaked anyone to the ground yet.
"I've had some solid blocks, though."
Bell's move to tight end was about him because he wanted to see the field. At the same time, it wasn't about him in the bigger picture.
He could have been a starting quarterback elsewhere. He chose not to leave because he wanted to stay with his teammates. He wanted to win a Big 12 and national championship, regardless of what that meant for him.
With Knight and several key players on defense returning, the Sooners are an early favorite to win the conference and get to the four-team playoff.
As part of that effort, Bell is willing to move elsewhere on the field.
He is still learning, not so much on what to do, but how to do it. He's getting there, too. On Tuesday, he was feeling good.
He had caught his first touchdown—from Knight.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.