It’s been hard for Liberty’s Isaiah Bell to choose which team to root for in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry since he started watching football as a kid.
His mother is a Wolverine fan, while his father cheers for the scarlet and gray.
But after 16 years, he has finally picked a team in one of the biggest rivalries in college football.
Bell, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound safety for Liberty, made a verbal commitment to play football for the University of Michigan on Monday.
The junior had four interceptions last season — returning two for touchdowns — and made 36 tackles (24 solo, 25 assists) for Liberty. Bell also was a key threat on special teams as he returned kickoffs and punts for the Leopards.
Bell didn’t play offense last year, but Liberty coach Jeff Whittaker said that will certainly change in 2008. Where exactly Bell will play is still a mystery because of his array of talents, and that’s one of the main reasons Whittaker can see why one of the top colleges in the nation would be after Bell.
‘‘I’m not sure what he is right now,’’ said Whittaker of Bell’s position on offense. ‘‘He was 180 pounds last year, he’s 215 right now. That’s a hell of a change to his body. He’s only a junior, so you don’t know how big he’s going to be.
‘‘He can run the football, there’s no doubt about that. We saw that when he returned kicks and punts. He’s got great hands, we saw that in his interceptions. And he’s also in the running for the quarterback spot. How that turns out is entirely up to how he and the team progresses.’’
Bell, who had ‘‘dozens of Division offers,’’ according to Whittaker, said he wants to play safety at Michigan, and wherever else the Wolverines need him. He said first-year coach Rich Rodriguez was the primary reason he decided to play for Michigan.
‘‘They remind me of the coaching staff at Liberty,’’ Bell said. ‘‘It wasn’t just a coaching staff, they work like a family in terms and looking out for each other.’’
Rodriguez began his recruiting of Bell about a month ago, Bell said. He said the recruiting coach at Michigan had noticed a few kids from the northeast Ohio area in Bell and teammate Fitzgerald Toussaint. Bell said it wasn’t long after he talked with Rodriguez that he decided Ann Arbor, Mich., was the place for him.
‘‘The players and the campus,’’ said Bell of what greatest impacted his decision aside from the coaches. ‘‘And I wanted to get all this off my chest, that way I didn’t have to worry about injuries or anything like that. Now, I can just focus on school and football.’’
The focus for Bell may change to offense this year because, as Whittaker noted, ‘‘If you have a kid going to Michigan, you better find a way to get him the ball.’’ Finding out where Bell will play may be the biggest challenge, but it’s a good problem to have considering his talent.
‘‘You look at Isaiah, at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and he can run, so you know he’s versatile’’ Whittaker said. ‘‘He can play slot back or wide receiver; on defense he can play strong safety, free safety, even outside linebacker. He made some great plays and showed a lot of athleticism on a number of those plays, and he was really able to show his athletic skills when returning punts and kickoffs.’’
Bell returned two interceptions for touchdowns against Girard last season. The first was 103 yards and the second was 65 yards. Bell, who also plays basketball for Liberty, returned a kickoff for a touchdown during that Girard game as well, and while it was called back due to a penalty, it was another way Bell showcased his talents.
‘‘When you add up those returns with his defensive plays, he had a pretty nice highlight film,’’ Whittaker said.
Bell hopes to add to that film at Michigan, a place his mom will be quite excited to see him play. Dad, on the other hand, is going to have a tough time figuring out who to root for come November.
‘‘My mom is a Michigan fan, so there is always a big debate over that since my dad’s a big OSU fan,’’ Bell said. ‘‘I’m not a fan (of either), I really didn’t have a favorite team growing up.’’
It’s easy to see why.