AUBURN, Ala. — The start wasn’t by design. Auburn cornerback T’Sharvan Bell stood on the sideline against Louisiana-Monroe, ready to rotate into the game at some point in the first quarter.
But starter Neiko Thorpe got clobbered running across the field on the Tigers’ first kickoff.
“He got jacked pretty good,” said Bell, who got the start in his place. “His eyes were wandering.”
Despite the last-second change, there was no dropoff. Bell, a third-year sophomore, is essentially a third starter at cornerback for the Tigers, part of a three-man rotation with Thorpe and Demond Washington.
Bell finished with five tackles and a pass breakup against ULM. He has 12 stops, a half tackle for loss, two pass breakup and a fumble recovery this year, seeing his role increase with time.
“He’s a guy who has gotten significantly better than he was last year,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “He committed himself to the game, learning the game and becoming more physical.”
Said head coach Gene Chizik: “His best days are ahead of him.”
Part of it is simply getting comfortable at cornerback. The 6-foot, 180-pound Bell played quarterback at Osceola High in Kissimmee, Fla., but moved to the secondary upon arriving in Auburn.
His development was stunted his first year on campus, when he broke the fifth metatarsal in his foot. How?
“Doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” he admitted with a laugh, saying it was off the field but adding nothing else.
It knocked him out his first year in 2008, a redshirt season. Once the new coaching staff arrived, he didn’t fare much better.
Bell shuttled between corner and safety, unable to get too much of a grasp on either.
Roof said Bell wasn’t dependable. He made nine tackles and a pick in 12 games last year but was lost in the shuffle, his football career going nowhere.
“I probably took things for granted,” Bell said.
Then came the Outback Bowl. Part of a motley crew of defensive backs forced into action because of injuries, Bell made his biggest impact to date, intercepting two passes against Northwestern’s air-it-out attack. One came in the end zone.
“It got me excited,” he said. “I never have doubted myself, but I was like: You really can do this. Now I have to pick it up and keep it going.”
Bell continued to progress in the offseason. With an abundance of safeties, coaches made him a cornerback again. After some time, he finally started to feel like one.
“There’s several differences as far as being out there on an island,” he said. “Coaches depend on you to guard a receiver. You’ve got that kind of pressure on you. ... There’s a great anticipation thing. You’ve got to have great technique and be more sound in what you’re doing at cornerback than at safety.”
Bell embraced a physical mindset, a departure from his days as a quarterback.
“In high school, I never had to be real physical,” he said. “You know, I brought guys down. But in the SEC, if you don’t bring them down, they’ll run you over.”
“He’s not scared to throw his body in there against anybody,” linebacker Craig Stevens said. “I like that about him. He came a long way.”
Bell still has bouts of being overanxious. He tried to jump a short pass to the sidelines against ULM but whiffed, allowing a Warhawks receiver to catch the ball and turn upfield for a first down.
It was a minor lapse. Those types of mistakes are fewer in number these days.
“This is still a transition period for him, but he’s starting to grow up and play with more confidence,” Chizik said.
As for whether or not he starts, Bell couldn’t care less.
“When the game gets tough,” he said, “it’s who finishes that counts.”