E.A. Sports Today

Dual threat

LaDerrick Bell latest in line of dual-threat quarterbacks at Saks, keeps the line moving with his legs, arm


Coach: Jonathan Miller (45-15 Saks, 5 years)

Aug. 25 – OPEN
Sept. 1 – at Wellborn
Sept. 8 – Jacksonville
Sept. 15 – at White Plains
Sept. 22 – Ashville
Sept. 29 – at St. Clair County
Oct. 6 – Cherokee County
Oct. 13 – at Anniston
Oct. 20 – Oneonta
Oct. 27 – at Hokes Bluff
Nov. 3 – Weaver

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

It was late in the second quarter of a late-season game at Oneonta and Saks was desperately trying to score some points before halftime. The Wildcats had their kicker ready for a field goal that would have given them some momentum into the break, but they would prefer the touchdown. Time was running out and the pocket was collapsing.

LaDerrick Bell was doing his best to keep the play alive, keeping one eye on the clock and the other on the would-be tacklers he was hoping to avoid. All of a sudden he stopped, fired back across his body and found a receiver in the front corner of the end zone to give his team its much-desired points.

The Wildcats went on to win the game and clinch another spot in the playoffs with two weeks to spare.

Bell’s reputation as a dual-threat quarterback wasn’t born on that play, but it sure was solidified.

Saks quarterback LaDerrick Bell can make things happen with his legs and his arm. (Photos by B.J. Franklin)

Bell is but the latest – and maybe the last – in a line of dual-threat quarterbacks under coach Jonathan Miller that have carried the Wildcats to their greatest run of success since the days of Jack Stewart. And there are many who believe the smooth 6-foot-2, 175-pound senior has the potential to be the best of the lot, even projecting past the one who started it all — Trey Smith, now at Central Arkansas.

He’s got a strong arm, a quick release, is agile enough to find an opening and fast enough in the open field not to be caught.

“He would be exactly what I want in a quarterback,” Miller said. “The thing that puts pressure on defense more than anything is a quarterback who is a dual threat, who can get back there and you have to respect him throwing the ball but they can also run it effectively. It’s definitely had a big impact on our success and we’ve built the offense really around our quarterback.”

Recalling that play at Oneonta brings a big smile to Bell’s face, but it wasn’t the first time he dazzled with his ability to make something happen. A couple weeks earlier, backed up to his end zone against St. Clair County, Bell was flushed again; this time he found a crack of daylight and covered the 98 yards in front of him for the longest scoring run of his career and what he considers his No. 1 play of the year.

And then there was the time he threw off his back foot and hit Trey Huguley for a touchdown against White Plains.

“I like running the ball, but I love throwing the ball, too,” Bell said. “It depends on if I’m getting pressure or if I feel comfortable in the pocket. If I feel like I can run I’m going to take it and run, but if I know I can sit in there and wait for the pass to get open I’m going to be patient, wait for the best option.”

This whole run of dual-threat quarterbacks at Saks started because the head coach needed to find a way to get the ball the hands of his best athlete more often. What better way to do that than let him direct the offense?

Smith I responded with nearly 2,500 yards of evenly divided total offense and 36 total touchdowns in a year the Wildcats set the school record for points and went all the way to the Class 3A semifinals.

The next year the job fell to Devin Harris, sort of by emergency. Harris was a slot receiver, but projected quarterback Quin Smith wasn’t completely recovered from an ACL tear, so the job went to Harris. He was more of a runner than his predecessor and rushed for more than 2,000 yards while breaking the school record for rushing touchdowns (27).

Smith II finally got his chance behind center in 2015. He might have been the smallest of the quarterbacks in size, but he was quick on his feet, although he didn’t have to run it as much with the other backs behind him, and could throw it if you slept on him.

And now it falls to Bell. The good thing for the Wildcats is he’ll be the first one of the lot they’ve had in the position for more than one year. Each of the three preceding quarterbacks played only as seniors.

The 2016 season was a year of growth for Bell. Ostensibly learning to play the position on Friday nights, he rushed for 747 yards, passed for 1,037 and accounted for 17 touchdowns. Those numbers are expected to take a big jump this season between his year of varsity experience and the veteran group of players, including a massive offensive line, around him.

“It felt different, a lot of responsibility,” Bell said of his first year as varsity starter. “It wasn’t hard, but there was a lot of stuff I learned from that I could fix and use it for this season. At the moment I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but looking back at the mistakes I made, it was real big for me and my team. I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to build in my team chemistry and get everybody on the same page, if we get everybody on the same page we’re going to be unstoppable.”

Actually, Bell just sort of fell into the Wildcats’ lap. He transferred into Saks from Opelika (where he was a ninth-grade teammate of 2016 Mr. Football La’Damian Webb, now at Beauregard) in the middle of his freshman year for a change of scenery and Miller learned of him by walking the halls.

“He wrestled and played receiver at Opelika and we turned him into a basketball player and a quarterback,” Miller said.

Offensive coordinator Michael Easley recognized Bell’s potential early and made him the B-team quarterback that first year. But the next season when the Wildcats had to replace yet another senior quarterback, LaDerrick answered, um, the bell.

“I told (inside linebackers) coach (Kevin) Bedwell he has a chance to be the best one I’ve had here at Saks, and that says a lot,” Easley said. “He has so much natural (ability), natural gifts you can’t teach.

“As strong as his arm is, his legs are lethal. Straight line, not many people can catch him, that’s why we tell him his legs are lethal. He’s got the ability to make a big play with his arm and his legs, not every quarterback we’ve had could do both. Anybody can sit back there and chunk it, but he drops it on the outside shoulder 55 yards down the field. Having the ability to make a big play with his legs or arm makes him special.”

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