Potential first-round riser Bryce Bell has never shied away from undersized label

Photo courtesy: Mike Veltri / Laurier Athletics

Heading into Tuesday’s 2021 CFL Draft, Wilfrid Laurier offensive lineman Bryce Bell has firmly worked his way into the first-round conversation.

While a quick look at his tape shows you why scouts have become enamoured with the fleet-footed Golden Hawk, the building hype was initially a surprise to Bell himself.

“I wasn’t on the first [Scouting Bureau] list, which was in the fall, so when I did appear on the second list, which was published in the spring, I was a bit surprised,” he said with a chuckle.

“I was kind of confused. Like, what was the big change? Between the fall list and the spring, nothing football was done.”

The answer to his meteoric rise may lie in the simple fact that Bell wasn’t at the top of scouts’ to-do lists early in the draft process. Listed at just over 280 pounds in 2019 and without the benefit of an East-West Bowl performance to grab attention, the undersized right tackle was overlooked in favour of more imposing prospects.

“It’s always been size and strength and I’ve worked on that really closely with my strength and conditioning coach, Jesse Collins,” he said.

“He’s helped me over the past five years to be in a position where I’m able to talk to you guys today, because when I came into Laurier as a 235-pound guy, I definitely wasn’t getting the same looks.”

When CFL teams did get around to popping in the tape, they saw a player that jumps off the screen with his hand placement, short area quickness and tenacity.

“As a player, I really think I have good athleticism in the box. We always talk about how speed is efficiency in the box and I feel like I’m efficient in my movements,” Bell said.

“I’m a very technical o-line player. I’m able to bend well and move fast and really impart a lot of force for a guy who wasn’t really the biggest or strongest guy in the weight room.”

He considers that skillset a testament to the quality of coaching he’s received at Laurier. Current offensive line coach Zach Sotto has been a constant throughout his career and when he first arrived on campus, former sixth-round CFL draft pick turned two-time all-star for the Ottawa Rough Riders Irv Daymond gave him someone to look up to.

“I was blessed coming into an o-line room with Irv Daymond, who was a ten-year CFL player and a legend in my eyes, who played at 265 in the CFL during that time,” Bell says.

“That ability to be a lighter o-lineman and still be elite, I had all the inspiration right in front of me at a Laurier.”

Bell won’t be quite as light as Daymond when he takes the field in the CFL. Over the course of the lost 2020 U Sports season, he’s remained active with his Laurier team whenever protocols have allowed and packed on healthy weight, tipping the scales at 295 pounds at the Virtual Combine.

That will help reassure the teams that haven’t already jumped onboard the Bell bandwagon, but it still may not be enough to convince them to keep him at tackle. Though he started for two years as the right bookend in the OUA, Bell is more than comfortable playing any of the five spots up front.

“From a historical standpoint, I may not be at that height or weight requirement to play tackle. Even though I’m confident in my athleticism and my ability to block those fast guys on the edge, people may see that as a limiting factor,” he acknowledged.

“I’m confident playing any of those positions and wherever the coaches thinks is best for me to play and they can use me best in the system, I’ll play that.”

Wherever he plays in 2021, Bell has never shied away from the fact he isn’t as physically imposing as his opponents. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, he simply admits his faults so he can overcome them.

“I don’t see it as much of a challenge. I just see it as trying to objectively assess my abilities. To be the best o-lineman I can be, I need to understand what the opponents sees from me and play into that,” Bell explains.

“Knowing that I was an undersized o-lineman, I knew that people would probably want to bullrush me more, which means that I’d have to set up to prepare for that. Just being cognizant of that, I feel like has made me a better player over time.”

Knowing himself has got him to the place he is today, teetering on the edge of his pro football dream. It will be unusually bittersweet given the challenges of the past year, but Bell intends to share his draft day accomplishment with his parents, especially the one who helped him fight that undersized label.

“On Tuesday night, I’ll be at home watching the draft with my family and they’ve always been such a great support for me in helping me through this,” he said.

“It’s been a lot of food for sure and my mom’s a great cook. She’s helped me put on the pounds and just get myself and my body right.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.