On the wall of the team meeting room in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center sits a chart outlining the number of “Buckeye leaves” each Ohio State player has received during the season for various positive contributions.
On the top of the list, with 59 leaves on his helmet, is junior safety Vonn Bell.
In addition to topping the internal rankings — which were not yet updated for Saturday’s 28-14 win against Minnesota — Bell was recognized on Monday morning as the top defensive player in the Big Ten for Week 10.
The Rossville, Georgia, native made arguably the biggest play in the Buckeyes’ win, rescuing the team from a punchless first half when he intercepted a pass and returned it for a 15-yard touchdown to open up the scoring midway through the second quarter.
Bell said he and safeties coach Chris Ash had discussed throughout the week leading up to the game how important his contributions could be in what was primed to be — and ended up being — a defensive battle.
“Coach Ash told me at the beginning of the week that my performance could make or break the team,” Bell said. “I had to be able to play the deep balls and tackle very well because I’m the one high safety … just me and him having that conversation, I told him I could chow down for him.”
Bell came to OSU in 2013 and played in each of the first 13 games as a backup at the nickel cornerback position.
However, in the Orange Bowl against Clemson, an injury of Bradley Roby moved starting safety Corey Brown to cornerback and opened up a spot for Bell at starting safety.
Bell was burnt for a touchdown by Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins but he also made highlight reels with a one-handed interception at the 2-yard line early in the second quarter.
Bell said that first start was instrumental in shaping his confidence into his sophomore year.
“It was a very big step for my career,” Bell said. “That’s where it took off. I got in a groove, got my feet wet.”
Still, Bell did not start the opener at Navy the following year, coming off the bench at the free safety position behind Cam Burrows.
The next game, however, coach Urban Meyer inserted Bell at the position, and he hasn’t relinquished it since.
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said it is what Bell does between games that sets him apart.
“The greatest thing I can tell you is he’s a pro,” Fickell said. “He studies the game, he works the game, he practices the game, and it shows on Saturdays.”
The safety said he is able to put in so much effort because he genuinely loves what he is doing.
“I think it’s more fun than work,” Bell said. “We’re enjoying that time out there together.”
In his 14 starts in 2014, Bell had six interceptions, including three in OSU’s last four games.
He has followed that up with two picks through nine games in 2015, including the pick-six on Saturday. He also found the end zone in OSU’s second game against Hawaii on a 14-yard fumble return touchdown.
Bell, who also played wide receiver in high school — scoring 21 touchdowns in his senior year — said finding the end zone is one his favorite things to do on the gridiron.
So are snaps on offense in the cards for the junior? They are, if he was making the calls.
“I tell (wide receivers coach Zach) Smith all the time, ‘put me in there, I’ll run a route for you,’” Bell said.
Smith, in return, joked that the outspoken Bell should remain the defensive coaches’ responsibility to deal with.
“I’m volunteering my position as receivers coach if Vonn Bell comes and sits in my room,” Smith said. “Just dealing with him for 20 minutes a day when we go against the defense is plenty, I’m not dealing with him for a whole day. No chance.”
Even if his opportunities are forced to only come on defense, Bell — who predicted he would score two more touchdowns this season — said he is hopeful for what the rest of his season and time at OSU holds.
“I think there’s still more (in store),” he said. “I’m on the right path, I think. Just have to keep on going, take the next step.”
Bell and the Buckeyes are set to return to the field in Champaign, Illinois, to match up with the Fighting Illini on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for noon at Memorial Stadium.
Editor’s note: The caption of the photo that accompanies this story has been changed to reflect the game’s final score.
Correction 9/10: An earlier version of the story said Bradley Roby was suspended for the Orange Bowl, when in fact he was injured.