Kenny Bell is on track to have one of the best seasons ever by a Nebraska receiver, and he just might achieve his goal of becoming the first Cornhusker to crack 1,000 yards receiving in a season.
Bell has 20 catches for 463 yards through six games. Assuming the Huskers play the minimum of 12 games, he would need to increase his per-game average from 77 to 90 yards to pass 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers' record of 942 yards and hit 1,000.
"It's something that really is important to me," Bell said.
Don't get the impression Bell is selfish. He needed a reporter to tell him how many receiving yards he had.
"He brings a lot of life to the team, and he's made some great plays," fellow receiver Tim Marlowe said. "His yards after the catch are amazing. He can catch a hitch route and get you 25 yards. He's just a great player to have out there. He's a game-breaker and definitely someone that other defenses have to prepare for."
Bell figures if he has a big season statistically, it can only help the Huskers (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten), who visit Northwestern (6-1, 2-1) on Saturday.
"I just want to contribute to victories," he said. "If that means catching balls, that's awesome. If it means blocking, I'm more than willing. Whatever I can do."
Bell emerged as a playmaker the second half of last season, when he led the Huskers with 32 catches for 461 yards. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound sophomore already has gone past his 2011 total for receiving yards. All four of his TD catches have been 25 yards or longer, and his 23.2-yard average ranks first nationally among players in the top 100 in receiving yards per game.
"Everyone around here is expecting it," tight end Ben Cotton said. "Kenny is a great player, hard worker and good leader for this football team. We hold him to a pretty high standard because he holds himself to a high standard."
Bell's most important catch came in the 30-27 win over Wisconsin. The Huskers were down 27-10 in the middle of the third quarter and faced a third-and-6 from their own 27.
Bell reeled in Taylor Martinez's 20-yard pass on a corner route despite heavy hands-on coverage. Wisconsin was called for pass interference, tacking on another 15 yards, and Martinez scored on a 38-yard quarterback draw on the next play to start the Huskers' comeback.
"We needed to keep the drive alive," Bell said. "That's one I'm most proud of. I held onto the rock and got smacked. We couldn't afford not going down and scoring."
Bell's best efforts weren't enough in the Huskers' 63-38 loss at Ohio State two weeks ago. Bell had five catches for a career-high 133 yards, the most by a Nebraska player since Niles Paul had 154 yards against Kansas in 2009.
Bell still laments not scoring on his career-long 74-yard play against the Buckeyes. Ryan Shazier brought him down short of the goal line despite Bell's attempt to stiff-arm him.
"If you go 74 yards, you better get into the end zone," Bell said.
The Huskers had a bye week after Ohio State, and Bell was among the leaders at a players-only meeting to challenge the team to finish the season strong.
"Last week, it was aching at me," he said. "After a loss, especially an idle week, you have time to reflect on things. It just needed to be said. After you get your butt kicked like that, it's a terrible feeling. You have to find a way to fill that pit in your stomach with fire."
Cotton said Bell has become a leader because he backs up his eloquently spoken words with action on the practice and game fields.
"Kenny's been doing a great job of saying the right things when they need to be said," Cotton said. "He's never stepping out of line or getting down on anybody. He tries to pick guys up, make sure guys are clued in and ready go."