Le'Veon Bell's 2012 season really began last January, when fellow running back Edwin Baker announced he was skipping his senior year to enter the NFL draft.
Suddenly, Bell's carry-splitting arrangement in Michigan State's backfield was a thing of the past. There was no doubt about whom the Spartans would build their running game around. But even after months of preparation, the increased workload was a bit of a shock.
``It surprised me, as many carries as I got,'' Bell said. ``I'll do whatever it takes for us to win games.''
Michigan State hasn't won as many as in seasons past, but Bell has certainly done his part. The 6-foot-2 junior enters Saturday's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Texas Christian with 1,648 yards on 350 carries - and his 266-yard effort in the regular-season finale against Minnesota is the biggest reason the Spartans are in the postseason at all.
Bell was already a big-play threat before the season. He averaged over 5 yards a carry in his first two years, running for 948 on 182 attempts as a sophomore. He and Baker seemed interchangeable at times, and sharing responsibility may have helped keep Bell fresh.
There has been little time for a breather in 2012. In the season opener - a win over Boise State - Bell ran for 210 yards on 44 carries. He also caught six passes.
Before that game, Bell's career high was 20 attempts.
Bell put on some weight before the season and is now listed at 237 pounds, although he said he was actually around 242 at one point and has slimmed down while preparing for the bowl.
Michigan State (6-6) fell out of the Big Ten title race amid a slew of close calls in conference play. The Spartans' first seven league games were decided by no more than four points, and they won only two of them. Bell ran for 188 yards in a loss to Nebraska and 140 in a defeat against Iowa despite defenses geared to slow him down.
``It seems like every team we play had a specific game plan to stop Le'Veon,'' quarterback Andrew Maxwell said.
That didn't matter against Minnesota. With Michigan State needing a win to become bowl eligible, Bell ran for 266 yards on 35 carries on a cold afternoon in a 26-10 victory. He became the seventh rusher in school history to pass the 3,000-yard mark for his career.
Bell is third in the nation in rushing at 137 yards per game. He's second in total carries, 25 behind Stefphon Jefferson of Nevada, who already played his bowl.
Throw in Bell's abilities as a pass catcher and size that makes him a fine blocker, and his football future appears bright. It's certainly possible he could follow Baker's path and declare for the NFL after his junior season.
``Right now Le'Veon is the third-leading rusher in the country. He'll have a name for himself, he'll be projected. So there's a lot of advantages to doing something like that, but there's got to be value in that,'' coach Mark Dantonio said. ``I want to be fair to him and not be selfish with our program. But there's pluses and minuses on both sides, and at some point in time you have to make decisions.''
First, Bell and the Spartans will try to finish on a high note against TCU. And here's a scary thought for the Horned Frogs: Bell says the rest after the Minnesota game really helped his legs.
No surprise there. He's ready to handle the ball early and often.
``I just want to show everybody I'm a capable back,'' Bell said. ``I just want to show the nation what I can do.''