Coming out of high school, Sterling Johnson and Shadell Bell were out of Coastal Carolina’s league.
Both played in high school All-America football games.
Johnson, ranked the No. 109 player and No. 14 defensive end nationally by ESPN out of Clayton, N.C., had numerous offers from schools including Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida State, UCLA and North Carolina.
Bell, of Decatur, Ga., was a top-200 player and the No. 46 receiver nationally according to Rivals.com, and had offers from programs including Tennessee, N.C. State, Mississippi State and Virginia.
Both chose to attend Clemson after their senior seasons in 2014.
But after three years as Tigers – a redshirt freshman season and two years playing sparingly in largely inconsequential moments of games – both chose to look elsewhere.
Coastal became an attractive destination and the Chanticleers were able to land the national champion transfers, who have played vital roles in helping the Chants transition to the elevated play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level and helping new head coach Jamey Chadwell establish his culture in the program.
Both were voted captains last year by their teammates despite being new to the team.
“They’ve both been great additions to us. They’ve seen what a championship program looks like, they’ve been in it, they know what it should be and how the work should go,” Chadwell said. “They’re not overly, all-the-time vocal, but when they are people listen to them. And they use the wisdom they’ve gained through their time at Clemson to make sure when guys here are asking, ‘Why are we doing this, why are we doing that?’ they can show and say, ‘Hey, this works if you’ll trust what’s going on.’ They’ve been big with that.”
The road to CCU
Johnson and Bell followed similar expedited paths to get to CCU with two years of eligibility remaining, graduating from Clemson before transferring to guarantee they would be eligible to play immediately per NCAA rules for graduate transfers.
They both graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at Clemson in January 2015.
At Clemson, Bell played in 12 games at tight end and had one catch for 8 yards, while Johnson saw action in 11 games on the defensive line and had 14 total tackles, including three for a loss of yards.
But their action generally came later in games when Clemson was in control against lesser opponents.
“It’s a little different going in there in the fourth quarter when your team’s up by 35 versus going out there when the game’s on the line,” Johnson said.
Bell began taking extra classes in his third college semester in anticipation of transferring and graduated in May 2018 with a degree in parks, recreation and tourism management.
Johnson consolidated his planned 2018 summer and fall class schedules to graduate after the summer semester with a degree in sports communication. He arrived at Coastal a week after fall football camp began.
“The biggest thing was playing and contributing,” said Bell, who asked Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to move him from receiver to tight end as a freshman for potentially more playing time. “You only get a small window to play college football and leave a mark. Coastal was a place I could come contribute and be a leader and not just be another player on the roster.”
They weren’t sure they wouldn’t gain more playing time as upperclassmen, but with each new Clemson recruiting class being among the best in the nation, they saw their chances diminishing. Three of Clemson’s 2018 starting defensive linemen were selected in the top 17 picks of the NFL Draft in April, and the fourth was taken No. 117.
They didn’t make a pact to transfer to the same school, but Johnson said “it just made the decision easier. It ended up being a good fit for both of us.”
A new home
Johnson (6-foot-4, 280 pounds) started seven of 12 games last season and had 24 tackles including 5.5 for a loss of yards, a quarterback hurry and blocked field goal attempt.
He is third on the team this season with 14 total tackles, including nine solo tackles and already a team-leading 5.5 tackles for loss. His average of 1.8 tackles for loss per game ranks second in the Sun Belt Conference and 11th nationally, and he has four quarterback hurries, including one that led to an interception.
“We came here to play more and that’s what we’re doing,” Johnson said. “Going 5-7 last year wasn’t really too exciting, however it’s part of the process of growing and building and making this a team and school where we wanted to be.”
Bell (6-1, 225) and sophomore Isaiah Likely have revitalized the tight end position for the Chants. In the three years prior to their arrival, tight ends were seldom used in the passing game, catching only five passes for 49 yards in 2017.
Bell had eight receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown last year, and has three for 29 yards and a TD this season. Likely (6-4, 225) has 20 catches for 189 yards and six touchdowns over the past two seasons, including eight for 83 yards and a TD this year.
Despite their production, the impact Johnson and Bell have had on the program is perhaps greater off the field.
They have leadership roles on a team with 66 true or redshirt freshmen and 90 players who are redshirt sophomores or younger.
Chadwell said he has asked for advice from Bell and Johnson more than a couple times when certain circumstances arise, to get their input based on their maturity and experience at Clemson.
He said they have also bought into what he’s trying to accomplish at Coastal and how he’s trying to accomplish it.
They were instrumental in helping Chadwell stabilize the program as seven players entered the new NCAA transfer portal and left the program after he was named head coach in January and was trying to put his stamp on it.
“I’m very thankful that we have them. If we didn’t have those guys we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now,” Chadwell said. “One, because they’re productive, but two, I think when you take over a program like I did . . .when you’re trying to change the way things are done a little bit, those guys have been a common voice saying, ‘Hey, just trust what happens. We’ve been in programs where this is done and it will work.’
“To have that voice to get guys to be, ‘Alright, give it a chance, give it a chance,’ you can’t put a price tag on what they did to help us transition from January to through spring ball. They were a calming influence.”
Johnson and Bell each have six rings from Clemson – one for the 2016 national championship, two for bowl wins and three for ACC championships. Bell’s grandmother is keeping his until he graduates, while Johnson has them in a bank safe deposit box.
They’re trying to add a seventh at Coastal, but will leave Conway with a lot more regardless. Bell will earn a master’s degree in sport management in December, while Johnson is on pace to earn his master’s in instructional technology in May.
“You don’t want to live with regrets,” Bell said. “The biggest thing was coming here and producing for something that’s bigger than us. We’re ready to build on what we’ve been doing this year.”