Ronnie Bell

49ers' Ronnie Bell embraces kick returner challenge with McCloud out

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HENDERSON, Nev. -- Throughout Ronnie Bell’s five-year Michigan career, he lobbied coach Jim Harbaugh to handle punt returns.

“I was trying to be the returner every year,” Bell told NBC Sports Bay Area on Friday.

The one season in which Bell, a wide receiver, was assigned to that duty was 2021. In the first half of the season-opening game against Western Michigan, Bell showed his playmaking ability with a 31-yard return.

However, he sustained a season-ending torn ACL on the play.

“I got injured the year I was going to do it full time,” Bell said. “I have experience doing it.”

That experience will be valuable with the 49ers. The team needs someone to handle return game duties with Ray-Ray McCloud, who handled every kickoff and punt return last season, expected to be out for up to two months after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured wrist.

“I feel like I fit in very well,” Bell said. “I was already really excited about being back there returning punts and getting that opportunity throughout this training camp.

"And now it’s unfortunate that Ray-Ray is down, but it definitely gives that opportunity for me to show that even more.”

Bell should get plenty of playing time to showcase his skills Sunday when the 49ers open the preseason against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Few, if any, of the team’s starters will suit up for the game. Starting quarterback Brock Purdy will sit it out after taking all of the first-team practice snaps Thursday and Friday.

Trey Lance is expected to start at quarterback and play the first half. Sam Darnold will see significant action in the second half.

Bell likely will get a lot of playing time on offense and on special teams.

Bell returned to Michigan for a fifth year after making a strong recovery from the knee injury at the beginning of the 2021 season. He caught 62 passes for 889 yards and had four touchdown receptions.

Last year, he returned two punts for 45 yards to cap his college career with an average of 11.3 yards on 13 returns.

The 49ers selected Bell in the seventh round of the 2023 NFL Draft, and he will have an opportunity to open the regular season in a significant role on special teams.

“He's done a good job,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He's a natural catcher. He's comfortable back there, so he'll have an opportunity.”

Bell said he feels comfortable in that area of the game despite never holding the return chores more than a game or two every year.

He said the major requirement for the job is confidence and believes his work under Harbaugh gave him the foundation to make a smooth transition into the NFL.

“The way that we practiced, I think that was a big thing,” Bell said. “Once I got up here, yes, the skill of everybody, how smart everybody is, is an adjustment. But from the standpoint of the intensity of every single rep, every single practice, that wasn’t much of an adjustment just because throughout college we were working really, really hard every day.”

Bell appeared to be ahead of most rookie wide receivers coming to the 49ers in the offseason. He is becoming a bigger factor in the passing game at practices, too, as he competes for a spot on the depth chart behind Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings.

He said he felt as if he made good progress in the understanding of the passing game during the offseason. It is still no easy task to get assimilated into the offense.

“(It’s) definitely tough,” Bell said. “Just the verbiage, hearing the play, getting the call, knowing your assignment. (I was) kind of bouncing all around the walls in the early weeks of camp. But I'm definitely feeling good now.”

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Bell's biggest challenge in the first three weeks of training camp has been learning the responsibilities as a blocker in the run game.

“When you’re in the huddle, you’re hearing your call and trying to figure out your assignment while people are moving around and the quarterback is about ready to snap the ball,” Bell said. “You got a lot going on in your head.”

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