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Wells makes the most of his chance to run

Running back has emerged into the size-speed combination that was envisioned when he signed with Ohio State.

By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 31, 2001
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TAMPA -- The list of great Ohio State running backs is seemingly endless, like the rows of seats at cavernous Ohio Stadium. Jonathan Wells arrived there four years ago, ready to carve out his slot on the list.

He had to take a number and wait.

Wait for the upperclassmen to move along. Wait for the confidence of his coaches. Even wait briefly as a freshman threatened his job.

"It was frustrating," Wells said. "I didn't plan on coming here and backing up anybody, but that's the way it happened. It's all about waiting your turn at a place like Ohio State."

Wells did, and the payoff proved worth it. The senior rushed for 1,257 yards and 15 touchdowns, leading the team to a win against archrival Michigan, a third-place finish in the Big Ten and a return visit to the Outback Bowl to face South Carolina.

The last time a Buckeyes rusher carried for as many yards was 1996, when Pepe Pearson had 1,484. Two years later Wells arrived, touted as a bruising-yet-fast runner in the mold of 1995 Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.

As an All-American at John Curtis High School in Louisiana, Wells rushed for 4,660 yards and 88 touchdowns for a three-time state champion. But opportunities as an underclassman were few, as Wells ran for 489 yards his first two years.

Last season Wells was expected to push Derek Combs for the starting job, but questions about his short-yardage toughness arose in midseason. Not until the penultimate game of the regular season at Illinois did he reveal his complete package, recording career highs in carries (27) and yards (131).

"He didn't get into the swing of things until later in the year," running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "I thought that maybe last year he should have had a year similar to this one, but I think he sort of maybe underestimated the seniors that came back to camp and it sort of shocked him a little bit."

Wells admitted that "people were making plays and I wasn't," and last summer vowed to change his status. He lived alone in Columbus, helping to hone his mental preparation in addition to physical conditioning.

In the season opener he appeared to have found his gear, rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns in a home win against Akron. But one more hurdle awaited -- former Tampa Gaither standout Lydell Ross.

At Indiana in the season's third game, Ross had a breakout day with 25 carries, 124 yards and 2 touchdowns. The freshman captured the attention of fans and the coaches, but Wells remained confident.

"I just kept playing hard," Wells said. "I'd been working hard for four years before I even heard of Lydell Ross. I just played my game, and things happened for me.

Wells stormed back the next game with 179 yards and three touchdowns in a win against Northwestern.

Along with most of the Buckeyes, he followed that with a poor outing against Wisconsin, but in every game after that Wells has scored at least one touchdown. In the final five games he rushed for 100 or more yards, and against Michigan he ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns in the first half before exiting with cramps.

"I think the game slowed down for me," Wells said. "I stopped pressing myself as hard as I was. I just finally decided that, hey, I've got talent."

His production now ranks 12th on the all-time Ohio State rushing list (2,344 yards), no small feat considering three Heisman winners are among the top 11 (Archie Griffin, George, Howard "Hopalong" Cassady) and most spent multiple seasons as the feature back.

"By midseason, he got there," coach Jim Tressel said. "Now, it will be interesting after a layoff to get him back there (for the Outback Bowl)."

Last season he carried 14 times for 52 yards at Raymond James Stadium in the Buckeyes' 24-7 loss. This season he almost certainly will get more carries, as Ohio State will try to pound at the Gamecocks defense.

Finally, the Buckeyes have the weapon they expected. It was worth the wait.

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