PITTSBURGH -- Forget toting the rock. Brad Salem saw the NFL trajectory as soon as Le'Veon Bell gripped a marker.
On Fridays, the Michigan State assistant coach used to test his running backs on the status of the offense -- where all 11 players should be on a given play. Not every running back cared all that much, Salem said, but a young Bell would perk up in those sessions. He'd illustrate every protection, every route, every audible, channeling his inner John Nash.
"He really has a rare football mind," said Salem, now Michigan State's quarterbacks coach. "You could see where his career was going really quickly. Just a joy to coach."
That was a simpler time for Bell, who for the second consecutive season faces a test on the status of his career. Back from a three-game suspension for missed drug tests, Bell recognizes he's making changes off the field, including taking care of his body and doing whatever possible to stay on the field.
Those who know Bell speak fondly of him, as if any red flag should be washed white. But explaining why the NFL's substance abuse policy keeps holding Bell back is a difficult proposition.
It won't be linebackers or safeties derailing Bell from a potential Hall of Fame path.
Only knee injuries or more poor decisions off the field can do that.
Bell has nearly 4,200 yards from scrimmage by age 24, he's in a contract year and his reconstructed knee is fully healthy.
Without sustained success, those previous headlines -- a possession DUI charge in 2014 and several missed drug tests this offseason -- are far too convenient for his detractors.
"I’m not a perfect person. I never will be," Bell said to reporters on Monday. "I’m not going to try to be. I understand there are some things I can get better at, and I’m going to shoot to get better at them."
After getting to know Bell for three seasons in Pittsburgh, Will Johnson knows the running back has one defining character trait.
He loves to respond to challenges.
When the team wanted Bell to slim down from 235 pounds after his rookie season, Bell dropped 20 pounds and maintained lean muscle with no problems. When the Pittsburgh Steelers used to play pickup basketball, Bell would compare himself to LeBron James.
"He was trying to go for 50 every time," said Johnson, now an H-back for the New York Giants. "And he'd let you know about it."
Bell has attacked his knee rehab in the same way. He's fully recovered from torn medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments suffered from a Vontaze Burfict tackle in Week 8 of last year.
Bell's new challenge is proving he's worth a long-term investment from the franchise for his play on the field and his dependability off it.
Bell has a safe landing strip in the Steelers locker room, which offers a jersey, a helmet and an opportunity without judgment. Several players say Bell has earned credibility in the locker room despite his issues because he's a team-first guy who "works his ass off," as one player put it.
"Everybody deserves chances," running back DeAngelo Williams said. "And not only do they deserve chances, we've got to forgive and we've got to forget. That's what us as a society forget. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we make multiple mistakes. ... Sometimes, it coincides with the first mistake we made in the beginning. Everybody's entitled to their own opinion. ... But we're going to support him whatever he does, just like they will support me or anybody else in this locker room. We grind together."
Williams calls Bell a great teammate who's "cool as hell." Bell has had no problems blending into the locker room, when he's available, which is the core issue.
Bell seems to recognize that, saying "obviously" he let his team down by missing three games and is ready to "show people what I'm able to do" over an extended period.
After talking with Bell over the summer, Salem didn't know all the details of the looming suspension but felt the need to encourage him anyway. He knows how devastated he'd be if he lost football for good.
"There's just nothing red flag about him," Salem said. "I know there's a bump in the road. You just want him to experience success in life. Our hope is that continues to happen for him. That's what I told him."
Shortly after the latest suspension, Bell released a video on social media that was quickly taken down. The reason for releasing it -- explaining why he missed the drug tests and how he's grown -- was well-intentioned. That he mentioned he hadn't smoked marijuana since December 2014 -- otherwise, after his DUI -- helps explain why the video might have been removed.
The video itself probably wasn't a great decision, but going nearly two years without smoking is considered progress.
Bell can find a schedule and approach that works for him.
"Keep setting new goals and be better than you were before, which he's already reached in that respect," Johnson said. "So it's about just continuing to do what he does every day in terms of getting ready for the field, and the rest will follow suit."