Before they were reunited at WSU, Renard Bell and Jamire Calvin played high school football together. During their recruitment, both undersized receivers had to overcome the stigma associated with their size

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Washington State’s 2017 football season began with the question of how the Cougars would replace River Cracraft’s legendary production from the slot.

As 15th-ranked WSU (7-1 overall, 4-1 Pac-12) enters the last third of the season on the road against Arizona this Saturday the answer is apparent: Renard Bell and Jamire Calvin are the Cougars’ slot duo of the future, and in their first collegiate season together, the freshmen receivers from Cathedral High School in Los Angeles have made outsized contributions to WSU’s offensive stat sheet.

Through eight games, Bell and Calvin have two receiving touchdowns apiece, and each rues one more score that got away – Calvin on a drop in the end zone against USC, and Bell on the 99-yard kickoff return touchdown against Cal that was called back on a holding penalty.

Bell, WSU’s redshirt freshman starting H-receiver, is second behind Tavares Martin Jr. with 402 receiving yards on 23 catches. He leads the team with a 17.5 yard-per-reception average, and has, on multiple occasions, put his own spin on Cracraft’s playmaking abilities in space, hauling in breathtaking long bombs from Luke Falk.

Repping behind Kyle Sweet at Y-receiver, Calvin, a true freshman and former U.S. Army All-American, has produced regular offensive sparks with his elusiveness and quick feet, and has caught 22 passes for 198 yards.

“Renard’s playing really well. He’s clearly one of the best receivers on the team, and you can make the argument, he may be the best receiver on the team,” said WSU coach Mike Leach, “Jamire plays hard and practices really hard. He’s getting ready to take off here too, pretty quick.”

None of this surprises the Cathedral coaches, who swore Bell and Calvin were both surefire hits. But early on in their respective recruitments, both players had to fight the stigma associated with their lack of elite size.

Small but speedy

WSU’s pint-sized inside receivers aren’t exactly intimidating in stature. Bell weighs 162 pounds, stands a shade above 5-foot-8, and is the shortest player on the Cougars’ depth chart. At 5-foot-10, 152-pounds, Calvin is the lightest guy on the roster.

Their size didn’t matter in the Phantoms’ Air Raid offense, where in 2015, Bell started at Z receiver and had 1,124 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, while Calvin, at X receiver, had 684 yards and 12 touchdowns.

That was the only year they played together in high school because Calvin transferred from John Muir High to Cathedral before his junior year in search of better competition.

“You couldn’t bracket them,” said Cathedral coach Kevin Pearson. “They definitely changed the complexity of what the defense was trying to do.”

The duo was unstoppable on offense and special teams, where Bell returned kickoffs and Calvin returned punts.

“Renard is a speedster, man, he can fly. He’s a linear guy and a flash guy who can stick his foot in the ground and change direction fast,” Pearson said. “Jamire is really quick. He’s also fast – not as fast as Renard – but he’ll make guys miss, stop on a dime and change directions. He’s the only guy I’ve ever coached in 23 years who, on a punt return, I let him reverse the field.”

Bell had a big junior season in 2014, and that coupled with his 10.89 track speed in the 100m caught the attention of some smaller Division I programs, but Bell’s slight frame also scared off many college recruiters.

Bell has always been small. “He’s a finicky eater and he doesn’t eat much,” says his mother, Yarvelle Bell. “Basically, he eats pasta, he’ll eat fruit and he’ll eat salads. If he gets a hamburger, he might eat half a hamburger.”

Pearson recalls one UCLA assistant saying he really liked Bell but that he’d be a hard sell because UCLA head coach Jim Mora doesn’t like small receivers.

“He wasn’t very big, he wasn’t very tall, and because he ran track all the time, he never had an offseason weights program,” Pearson said.

By the end of his junior year, Bell held offers from Nevada, San Diego State, Boise State and Fresno State. WSU was his first Pac-12 offer, and after connecting well with coach Roy Manning, Bell committed early and shut down his recruitment.

“I got a good vibe from coach Manning when he recruited me,” Bell said. “That helped me a lot. That’s why I committed early because I felt good about the situation I was in. I liked coach Manning’s personality.”

Cathedral’s coaches believe Bell’s recruitment helped Calvin, who’s a year younger and 10 pounds lighter.

“Renard didn’t get the attention Jamire did, but he opened the door for teams to trust a small guy,” Pearson said.

Playing big

Calvin’s recruitment started even slower than Bell’s –which is funny to think about because he finished with more than 40 FBS offers, with Alabama, Nebraska and three quarters of the Pac-12 among his suitors.

“The recruitment for him started really late. We didn’t understand it,” said Cathedral receivers coach Michael Hernandez. “We had teams that were like, ‘He’s just a little undersized.’ And we were like, ‘We promise you’ll eat those words.’”

Reserved but intense, Calvin has an air of self-assuredness about him that can be misconstrued as arrogance if you don’t know him, his coaches say.

Calvin grew up playing defensive end in Pop Warner football and was coached by his father, Zaire Calvin, a former defensive end at Alabama State who taught his son little tricks he needed to run through bigger offensive players.

That set up Jamire well as he accepted that he would always be one of the smallest players on the field.

“He always knew he could play big,” Zaire Calvin says. “He was like, ‘If I’m not as tall, I’ll just jump higher than them. Jamire was never big, so he never worried about it. And I never let him think that mattered.”

Jamire never allowed his size to get in the way of his ambition. At one point, he wrote on Hernandez’s white board: “Jamire Calvin is the No. 1 player in Cathedral history.”

The sentence stayed on the board throughout the year. Hernandez would mess with Calvin at times by erasing the “1” and replacing it with an obscure number like “74.” Whenever the receiver saw this, he’d demand to know who the 73 guys ahead of him were.

“He had so much belief in himself that he was going to be one of the top guys in his class,” Hernandez said.

The offers finally came during Calvin’s junior season, and by the end of his senior year, he was a nationally-ranked  four-star recruit who was spoiled for choice. It came down to Alabama, Notre Dame, WSU and Nebraska.

Calvin committed to the Cornhuskers in late January, but WSU wanted him so badly that the three coaches traveled to Calvin’s home in Alta Dena to make one final push.

The Final Pitch

On the final Friday evening before Signing Day, WSU receivers coaches Derek Sage and Dave Nichol, and Los Angeles-area recruiter Roy Manning converged in the Calvins’ living room.

“We kept it real with him, and Jamire was good. He’d ask real, challenging questions,” Nichol said.

Calvin was torn between WSU and Nebraska. The inquisitive receiver identified with Leach and former WSU receiver Gabe Marks, and he salivated at the idea of playing in the Air Raid.

“He liked the way coach Leach is. He likes things to be different. He was just a different type of coach,” said Zaire Calvin. “Jamire is a thinker. He’s very intelligent. (Leach) could push Jamire with some of his mental things and stuff like that, and that was huge.”

Still, Calvin was drawn to Nebraska’s storied football tradition and had concerns about whether WSU could help him accomplish his goals, including playing in the NFL.

So that evening, he shot rapid fire questions at the three WSU assistant coaches who’d come down to make one last appeal.

What are your numbers of guys getting to the NFL? Why are they down? What are other people’s numbers? How many people have you personally coached who are in the NFL, coach Nichol? Can your team play for a championship?

Nichol was impressed by Calvin’s thoroughness.

“With all those questions and him being so intelligent, it was clear he had thought it through and was trying to make the best decision for himself from a receiver’s standpoint, while realizing he’s not a 6-foot-3, 200-pound kid,” Nichol said. “He already knew the whole depth chart. He was never in it for, ‘Hey, what kind of gear do you have?’

“The fact that he was willing to do the research and dive into what he wanted to do showed maturity.”

The coaches answered every question Calvin had, but when they left the Calvins’ house, Nichol turned to his colleagues, bummed, “Guys, here’s the deal, we fired all our bullets. Guys, we ain’t getting them.”

So he was surprised to find a text from Calvin the next morning saying, “Coach, you got me thinking.’”

Intrigued by the challenge of helping WSU football become a perennially nationally relevant program, Calvin flipped and signed with the Cougars.

Partnership rekindled

Ten months later, Bell and Calvin are two of the Cougars’ most promising young talents.

They weren’t particularly close at Cathedral because they only played together for a year, but their friendship has grown since Calvin arrived in Pullman.

“We’re bonding and getting closer every day,” Bell said. “It’s great to have someone from high school that I know here.”

Bell redshirted last season to add weight to his slim frame, and the coaches first saw glimpses of his ability during bowl practices last December.

“He’s always had pop plays,” said Nichol. “What he was doing was he stopped having the negative plays where we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh what are you doing? We can’t play you.’ That’s a big part of what we do. If your highs are highs and lows are lows, we’re not gonna play you.

“He got more consistent and started taking notes. Renard is smaller than everyone in America, but he’s fast and he’s at times elusive. For a guy in space, he is kinda what you want. He’s reliable.”

Calvin forced his way onto the depth chart as a true freshman after an impressive fall camp in part because of how quickly he mastered the playbook.

“The goal wasn’t to just get on the field as a freshman. It was, ‘I want to contribute and help WSU break records and help Luke Falk continue what he was doing and maybe get to a national championship,” Zaire Calvin said. “His thing was, ‘I want to learn. I want to be there and put myself in a position so they know I’m not just talking. I want them to know they can put me on the field, and then never give them a reason to take me off the field.”

Calvin’s intensity contrasts with Bell’s easy-going nature, but they’re both after the same goal, Nichol says: Improving themselves.

“They pick up on stuff and they’re not afraid to get coached,” Nichol said.