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Maryland coordinator Walt Bell has studied offenses since childhood in Tennessee

COLLEGE PARK — Growing up in a small town outside Nashville, Tenn., Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell used to spread out his football playing cards on the couch in the family room while watching college and NFL games on television with his father.

"I remember trying to put them in position and formations like the guys on TV did," Bell, 32, recalled Wednesday.

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Knowing from an early age that he had no interest of following  his father and grandfather into the field of medicine and that he wanted to be involved with football instead, Bell began studying offenses.

The first system Bell paid close attention to was the "Air Raid" offense at Kentucky developed by Hal Mumme. He watched others, too, from Fisher DeBerry's triple option at Air Force and Tom Osborne's version of the option at Nebraska.

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"You start going historically through those great offenses and I've loved all of them," Bell said. "Hopefully when people watch us play, there's elements of all of them. Our throw game is straight from Coach Mumme. We're really a triple-run option football team, even though it doesn't look like it."

As the stage gets bigger, with the unbeaten Terps headed to Penn State on Saturday, the spotlight grows brighter on Bell, who has gone from being a virtual unknown as a second-year offensive coordinator at Arkansas State last season to potentially becoming one of the nation's hot young assistants if the success continues.

The impact Bell has had in Maryland's first four games has been nothing short of spectacular: the Terps rank seventh in the country in rushing at 300 yards a game. Bell has helped turn fifth-year senior quarterback Perry Hills from mistake-prone to an effective game manager who had not committed a turnover until throwing an interception on his first pass in last week's 50-7 rout of Purdue in the Big Ten opener.

"If you let us run the ball, that's what we're going to do," Bell said. "If you put eight, nine guys in [the box], we're going to throw the football. We're the Yogi Berras of offense; we're going where they ain't."

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Not that Bell is satisfied.

"People see the number on the scoreboad and automatically assume that we're doing a great job, that I'm doing a great job and we're getting better," Bell said. "That's true and false. Anytime you run the ball for 400 yards you're pretty proud…But there was a plenty of bad….I know a lot of people are excited by how many points we scored. But we're not the '88 Niners. We've got a long way to go. We are by no means a finished product."

What stuck out to Bell from Saturday's win — the most one-sided for the Terps in a conference game since 2016 — was not the fact that sophomore running back Ty Johnson rushed seven times for a career-high 204 yards and two touchdowns or that running back Lorenzo Harrison's 62-yard touchdown run made him the first freshman in school history to score in his first four games.

The play that gnawed at Bell as the team prepared for the Nittany Lions was a third-quarter fumble by Hills, caused when two players in front of him collided.

"That's maybe as embarrassing moment as I've ever had as a football coach," Bell said Wednesday.

Bell knows that the mistakes the Terps made against the Boilermakers were covered up by Maryland's strongest defensive performance since first-year coach DJ Durkin took over – as well as Purdue's own offensive inefficiencies.

"As the level of competition picks up every week, which it will – which is a nice thing about our schedule: every week it's going to get a little bit better – we've got to start to reach our potential," Bell said. "We're not there yet."

That's sort of the way Bell looks at his own career. He played sparingly as a walk-on defensive back and receiver at Middle Tennesse, and then took graduate internships at four schools and a support staff position at another in the first five years of his coaching career before getting a fulltime assistant job at Southern Mississippi in 2011.

"All those moves were made trying to better my spot," Bell said. "When I was at Louisiana-Lafayette, I lived in the coaches' locker room for eight months. The only reason I ate was because of Blake Anderson [now head coach at Arkansas State who was the team's offensive coordinator]. He'd take me to Zaxby's every two or three days. Other than that, I just ate what was in the coach's locker room – Mountain Dew and chips. I went from 198 to 176 pounds."

Penn State coach James Franklin, the former Terps offensive coordinator, said during a Big Ten teleconference Tuesday that he has been impressed by what he seen from the Maryland offense this season.

Though the Terps ran a spread offense under Randy Edsall and Mike Locksley, Franklin has noticed a difference in the way it is run under Durkin and Bell.

"They are committed to running the football," said Franklin, who got his first offensive coordinator job at age 34 with Kansas State. "They do a good job of taking advantage of angles and leverage, with the calls to put their tight ends and offensive line in position to gain an advantage. And obviously their running backs are able to make people miss and make big plays for them. Then they've got enough in the passing game to keep you honest."

Johnson, the team's sophomore running back, said every player in Bell's offense must know the responsibilities of the other positions. He'll ask players during meetings, and then ask again 10 minutes later.

Johnson could tell from early in spring practice that Bell's offense was going to be much different from Locksley's. He and Durkin have stressed the need to be urgent in the up-tempo offense.

Bell said recently that "I'm not the most fun guy to be around in practice or in the meeting room," while adding that he is just as to quick to put an arm around a player's shoulder who has just messed up. Bell, who joked at the start of his weekly press conference about being told to "talk louder" to the media, is obviously getting the message across.

"He's very soft-spoken, you have to do something outrageous to make him yell or anything," Johnson said. "He's that type of coach where if he needs to pull you to the side or talk to you or anything to get you coaching, he'll do that. If you're the type of guy that needs to get yelled out a few times, he'll do that."

Bell said that his personality is much like his father, Walt III, who everyone calls "Butch".

"Really just being comfortable being yourself. That was a big deal for him," Bell said. "If they hate you for it, so be it. If they love you for it, awesome."

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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