November 12, 2013 9:46:21 AM
STARKVILLE -- The light bulb has come on for Starkville High School defensive lineman Maleke Bell.
Ever since Bell first started to get significant playing time with the varsity team as a ninth-grader, the Starkville coaches have said he could dominate when he wanted to and that it was a matter if he wanted to. Bell appears to have realized what he is capable of and has taken that final step.
"He's a game-changer, and sometimes it's hard for a young player, even in 10th grade like he is, to understand that as reality," Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. "We tell Maleke all the time that he can be the best player on the field anytime he wishes to do it, but he had to believe it for himself."
Bell leads Starkville (8-3, 6-1 Class 6A, Region 2) in tackles for loss (eight), sacks (three), and has a forced fumble. The play of Bell and AJ Smith on the defensive line has propelled Starkville into the postseason for a third-consecutive season and has helped transform a unit that struggled in September.
"The true men on the football field are in the trenches and at the offensive and defensive line," Bell said. "I know everybody notices the quarterback and the running backs, but it's my job on Friday night to make sure people give props to the defensive lineman as well."
Bell already has been identified as a potential high Division I prospect. He was part of a defense that forced three turnovers and held the Clinton to 117 yards in a 24-7 win Friday that clinched a first-round playoff home game against Grenada.
"The defense is what's going to determine who wins the ballgame Friday night because Grenada has an awesome defense, so we need to show our defense can rise to the occasion again," Bell said.
Starkville's defense scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery by Lorenzo Dantzler against Clinton, while Dantzler and Bell combined for three sacks.
For his accomplishments, Bell is The Dispatch's Prep Player of the Week.
"I thought he played a great first half, and that's the definition of Maleke because anytime you go to him and say, 'I need you to make a play', he goes and does it for your team immediately," Mitchell said.
Bell's place as a leader on the defense has forced him to be more vocal and to help motivate his teammates. He also has made a commitment to watching film with his coaches to improve. That commitment to being a solid player and student started last year when he was a factor in Starkville's Class 5A state championship.
"We tell these kids all the time that you don't have to be a senior to be a leader, and let me tell you, when a sophomore like Maleke is confident enough to open his mouth, our guys listen to him," Mitchell said.
Bell, who isn't a shy person away from the football field, found it difficult last year and early this season to express himself to his older teammates.
"I believe that when I started speaking up more my teammates understood I'm buying into the plan we have at Starkville," Bell said. "At first, we weren't mentally prepared to go win like we are now that it's playoff time."
Bell said he has matured this season and is more critical of himself when he watches game film or practices. At 270 pounds, he knows he should be a fixture in opponents' backfields and live up to the "game-changer" label Mitchell uses to describe him.
"He's not blockable, period," Mitchell said. "He's got great leverage and explosiveness. He's miles ahead of where he was and the sky is the limit for his development."
Now that Bell realizes he can play at that level, he wants to push himself to greater heights.
"Last Friday, I noticed a difference in my energy level and impact to my other teammates when I was able to dominate on the field," Bell said. "When I'm at my full potential, I think I know where that level is when before I never could see myself getting to that level my coaches wanted me at. I'd be asking myself, 'Why are they riding me so hard?', but now I understand.
"The light bulb has done popped on for me that's for sure. ... It's finally to the point where I'm pushing myself to get better every day. (The light bulb is) on and (is) lighting up the room."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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