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Bruins' Bell makes a difference

The tailback, who worked on his game and his attitude after trouble last season, is impressive against Stanford.

September 02, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO -- While most of the crowd filed out of Stanford Stadium, a small army of family and friends stood at the railing by the field, waiting for Kahlil Bell.

Finally, the UCLA tailback trotted over for much hugging and hand-slapping, the kind of celebration that comes with a dazzling performance.

Dazzling as in 19 carries for 195 yards that helped power No. 14 UCLA to a season-opening 45-17 victory over Stanford.

And numbers tell only half the story.

"I've been through a lot," Bell said, his voice turning quiet as he walked to the locker room. "I'm trying, man, I'm trying."

This is a young man who for the last two years had struggled to find his place on the Bruins team, sitting out much of last season because of injury.

When UCLA stunned USC in the regular-season finale in December, Bell was sitting at home, suspended for the final two games.

Officially, he had violated team rules. Bell offers only a vague elaboration, saying he was too confrontational, not a good teammate. It was no fun missing out on a victory over the Trojans.

"I told myself that will never happen again," he said.

The transformation from that day to Saturday can be measured in several ways. Bell says he started by getting to work.

His running style had always reminded people of a fullback, so he spent the off-season building his explosiveness, which meant running up hills and stadium steps, putting on 15 pounds of muscle.

"Kahlil's always run hard," Coach Karl Dorrell said. "He's just in much better shape."

The junior who showed up at camp also brought a new attitude. He stopped worrying about the depth chart, focusing instead on "being a teammate first and foremost. I didn't really know how to do that."

Chris Markey was considered the No. 1 tailback coming into the season, but with the Bruins suffering injuries in the backfield, it was no secret that Bell would get his share of carries.

Against Stanford, while Markey struggled at times, and quarterback Ben Olson provided the fireworks with five touchdown passes, Bell was a churning engine.

He entered the game on UCLA's second possession and bulled for 14 yards. A few minutes later, he ripped off a 59-yard run that set up Olson's touchdown pass to Gavin Ketchum for a 14-0 Bruins lead.

"For us to be able to run the ball, it opened things up for the pass," Olson said.

Despite all those summer workouts, Bell still relies on strength and, on one occasion, broke through the line only to be caught from behind. He did not seem too concerned, saying he knows what the team needs from him.

"They need me to be physical," he said.

His proudest moment came in the third quarter when the favored Bruins led by only a touchdown and took possession on their three-yard line. Bell ran twice for nine yards. Then, on third and one, he burst for 22 more, sending UCLA on its way to a 97-yard scoring drive and a 21-7 lead.

It was a pivotal moment, with Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh saying: "They had a couple of runs that got away from us."

But Stanford has a way of making running backs look good, finishing last in rush defense in the Pacific 10 Conference last season.

And although Bell shared some laughs with family afterward -- he hails from the Bay Area -- memories of last season remain vivid. He figures there is more hard work and growing up to be done.

"Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves," he said. "It's just one game."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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