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UCLA's Bell is keeping it cool and collected

October 03, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

This was an easy question for someone with a shoot-from-the-lip style.

Who is your favorite offensive lineman?

UCLA tailback Kahlil Bell glanced skyward, as if seeking advice, then smiled and groaned, "You're going to get me in trouble."

Then in his best vote-for-me voice said, "I love all the linemen. They are all cool guys."

Diplomacy from Kahlil Bell?

No one on the UCLA roster carries a heftier reputation than Bell, whose return to the lineup last week brought energy to the Bruins' running game and intensity to practice.

He can be brash, jovial, volatile and cutting -- sometimes all in a matter of seconds. Twice in the last week Bell had on-field altercations with teammates, including an exchange of head butts with freshman linebacker Patrick Larimore.

That demeanor pushed him to return from knee surgery after eight months, and had him pleading to get back on the field after suffering an ankle injury in the opener. It was also the root cause of a confrontation with a teammate two years ago that resulted in Bell being suspended from the team.

But the Bruins' most intense personality has undergone a makeover teammates have noticed, with a bit of relief.

"The first couple years, he was hard-headed," said defensive tackle Brigham Harwell, who sits next to Bell in the locker room. "I'll say it, he was a knucklehead. He made some bad decisions in the locker room. He learned from mistakes."

So when Bell and freshman Derrick Coleman had an altercation during practice last week, Harwell said: "Two years ago, I'd be worried, thinking, 'My God, Kahlil, here we go again.' But it doesn't carry over off the field now. He was going around the locker room giving high fives. Before, he wouldn't let it go."

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In many ways, Bell will always be the fourth-grade kid who was picked last when it came to sports.

"Then my dad bought a basketball hoop for me and my little brother," Bell said. "We didn't have concrete because we lived on this big ranch with my grandma. I was out there every day, dribbling in the rocks and dust and dirt, shooting at a little half-moon backboard. I was the best player in the school as a fifth grader."

Bell has applied that work ethic ever since.

He was told he could be a starter on the varsity as a sophomore in high school -- if he gained some weight. He put on 35 pounds in the off-season.

After his suspension at UCLA, he was allowed to return to the team as a junior. He ran for 195 yards against Stanford in the opener and was the team's leading rusher last season with 795 yards despite sustaining a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the eighth game.

He was told in December that the recovery time after surgery was usually 12 months. He was back practicing in eight.

"Even to this day I really don't think that I'm the most talented player," Bell said. "What separates me from a lot of other people, as cliche as it sounds, is I want it more than anybody else. I work harder."

And somehow bounces back quicker. As he had from his knee injury, Bell returned to action early this season after suffering a high ankle sprain against Tennessee.

Similar injuries have kept other players off the field for weeks, sometimes for an entire season. Bell tried to practice four days later. After a week, he was begging to get back to play against Arizona, only to be told no by Coach Rick Neuheisel.

"Kahlil is like the knight in that Monty Python movie," Neuheisel said. "He gets his leg cut off and says, 'It's only a flesh wound.' "

Bell was back in the lineup against Fresno State on Saturday. He gained 73 yards in 20 carries and scored two touchdowns in a 36-31 loss.

Yet, in the fourth quarter, with the Bruins driving for a possible go-ahead touchdown, Bell was on the sideline.

Neuheisel said, "His ankle had tightened up."

Bell said, "I could have been out there," but added, "The coach made a decision and at that point my job was to be the team's biggest cheerleader."

The Bruins lost the ball when Coleman fumbled. Bell, who had a shoving match with him days earlier, consoled him.

"What I had to do is learn how to interact with people better," Bell said. "Some people, you have to get in their face. Other people you just pat on the back."

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Some guys walk around with a chip on their shoulder. Bell toted around a cinder block.

"For whatever reason, he came in as a freshman and felt like he had to watch his own back," guard Scott Glicksberg said. "It was like, 'I don't know who I can trust.' He's changed. He has become less isolated."

Bell showed what he could do even that first year. When Maurice Drew was injured before the 2005 Sun Bowl, Bell and Chris Markey stepped in. Markey gained 150 yards and Bell 136 to earn co-most valuable players of the game.

The next season, Bell and Markey had a physical confrontation, though no one will say what prompted it. Bell was suspended and watched UCLA's 13-9 upset over USC in his apartment, talking with his father Mike on the phone throughout the game.

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