Dec. 13, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Contrary to a widely held assumption, Le'Veon Bell hasn't decided whether he'll play football at Michigan State next fall or leave early for the NFL.
Bell has barely had time to begin a list of "pros" vs. "cons" for either choice let alone chisel a declaration in stone, and as the process plays out, he will find that the reasons for staying have just as much merit as those for going, head coach Mark Dantonio said Wednesday.
Ultimately, Bell's decision is going to come down to value and risk after he completes final exams this week, gets through the remaining bowl practices and faces TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 29.
"He's not made a decision yet," Dantonio said with certainty. "Right now, Le'Veon is focusing on the present. He's like most young people. They don't look too far in the future, they're focused on the present and they're pretty resilient about the past."
Beyond that, Bell has paid only cursory attention to his options and any presumption before he plays the final game of his junior season would be needlessly premature. For one thing, Bell's opinion could change as radically his direction after making one of his jump-cuts depending on how he performs against the Horned Frogs in Tempe, Ariz.
He's also weeks away from seeing the NFL College Advisory Committee's best guess of how he would stack up in this April's draft. Even then, Bell has until Jan. 18 to sort things out.
As far as Dantonio can determine, Bell is still working with a blank slate.
"Right now, Le'Veon has been extremely positive about both aspects," Dantonio said. "What we've talked about is that he has to look at two different sides to this. What's most important to me is, I don't want to be selfish and say, `This is what you need to do and this is why.'
"What I have said is if you decide to come back, there's got to be value in doing that and it's got to equate to leaving, or vice versa. Right now, he shouldn't be painted into a corner, either way."
It's going to be a weighty decision that will be subjected to intense second-guessing either way.
"When you make a big decision like this, I've always told my players, and myself, that we should always slow the process down, so we can make the best decision we can," Dantonio said. "That's what we're trying to do here. Slow the game down."
Bell may come to the realization that there won't be a better time to dive into the NFL Draft pool even if he were to improve upon this season's 1,648-yard output, which is second only to the 2,066 gained by Lorenzo White in 1985.
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN's draft analyst, this week projected Bell as a second-rounder. However, CBSsports.com ranks Bell 140th among players considered to be in the draft, which puts him potentially as low as the fourth round.
Where a player is actually selected, especially after the first round is completed, often has little to do with where he's projected. Draft day is fluid, volatile and unpredictable. What appeared to be a sure landing spot in the second round can turn into a free-fall if that team comes across another player it wasn't expecting to still be on the board.
Then, there are the dreaded injury- and performance-driven unforeseen circumstances that Bell has to consider when determining if returning to Michigan State is in his best interest. If he makes a pro team next year, at least he'll be getting paid whether he's in the starting lineup or on the practice squad.
What's more, every player is wired differently. Some are determined to get into the NFL regardless of the cost to legacy and reputation, while others are motivated by intangibles.
Bell needs just 1,687 yards to eclipse White, with 4,887 yards from 1984-87, as MSU's all-time leading rusher and he's within reach of becoming just the sixth 5,000-yard career rusher in Big Ten history. With 33 touchdowns, Bell is also just 11 shy of breaking White's school record.
Furthermore, there's little question in Dantonio's mind how Bell, who leads the Big Ten in rushing and is third nationally with 137.3 yards per game, will be regarded heading into next season and what he can accomplish with the team and individually.
The first-team All-Big Ten selection will likely appear near the top of every major award watch list and he could parlay his 2012 CFPA Elite Running Back of the Year Award into even more hardware.
"The reasons for him to come back are that he will have an opportunity to become the all-time leading rusher in Michigan State history," Dantonio said. "There's a pretty strong percentage that that's going to happen.
"I feel like we have unfinished business in terms of how this season went down, and there'll be the opportunity for him to play in a BCS bowl game at a high level and compete for a Rose Bowl."
And while everybody likes to pay lip service to the so-called secondary nature individual awards play in a team sport, that contention certainly isn't supported by the hype they receive this time of year.
"The national awards are right there for him if he decides to come back," Dantonio said. "He may be the one going to the Heisman (Trophy ceremony). Instead of carrying around the (Elite Running Back of the Year) trophy at the basketball game, he may be walking around with a little more than that."
While it's something he can always complete later in life, Bell is on schedule to earn his degree in sociology in May 2014.
"You can't underestimate the value of education later on in life," Dantonio said. "Then there's the whole aspect of you're finishing (what you started) and you don't want to settle for less.
"I do think he can help himself in the (2014) draft with another great year and also fixing some of the things that are in doubt. He's a great football player and I think he'll make an NFL football team, but at what expense to him from a draft standpoint?"
Dantonio is obligated to help Bell chart a course that's best for him regardless of the impact his decision has on MSU. What Dantonio doesn't want to see diminished in this argument is the value of what MSU has to offer Bell compared to the perceived rewards he'll potentially reap in the NFL.
While it would certainly boost Dantonio's program if Bell were to lead the Spartans back to the Rose Bowl and he becomes their first Heisman Trophy winner, the program gets a credibility bounce in recruiting every time it sends a player to the NFL, as well.
"We'll certainly investigate the process and go through the committee the NFL has formed to try to project what his draft status will be," Dantonio said. "Then we'll talk to the various people who make those decisions within the NFL organizations.
"I'll talk to those people personally, and then we'll sit down and have a home visit with his family to try and sort things out. Some have gone, and some have stayed after this process."
Former MSU middle linebacker Greg Jones returned after the Spartans went 6-7 his junior year in 2009 and he left with a Big Ten Championship ring in 2010. Wide receiver Devin Thomas (2007) and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy (2010) left after their junior seasons to become second-round picks.
"Greg Jones decided not to leave and I think he's endeared himself all over the Spartan nation because of it," Dantonio said. "Jerel decided to go out because that's what he wanted to do. The fact we won a Big Ten Championship with Greg and we finished 11-2 is something he'll remember for the rest of his life."
What matters most to today's high-profile student-athlete doesn't always conform to standard biases.
For example, being woven prominently into the fabric of MSU's athletic tradition, winning championships, finishing strong and establishing legacies meant more to former MSU basketball players Mateen Cleaves and Draymond Green than it did to others who saw their time as Spartans as an end to a means that was vital to them and their families for whatever reasons.
"I don't want to speak for him, but I think those things mean a lot to Le'Veon," Dantonio said. "In the way he handles himself around his teammates, I think he's a team person."
It's hard to fault the decisions made by Cleaves and Green, an NBA upstart any more than those of Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph, who've been enjoying long and fruitful pro careers since leaving early.
"Either way, there's going to be decisions that have to be made that are going to require sacrifice," said Dantonio. "In the end, he's got to weigh everything out. But what troubles me is that people think there's no value in coming back when there is definite value to coming back.
"As a program, we don't want to be selfish. In the end, we'll lay it all out, we'll talk about it and we'll make a good decision. I want to do what's best for our players, and usually what's been best for our players is what they think is best for themselves in the long term after they've done the research."