Inside The Numbers: Chris Wells

Plenty of people think Chris Wells is ready for a breakout season. Do the numbers back them up? In part two of our series seeking answers through historical perspective, we look at the initial starting year for a handful of Buckeye tailbacks over the past two decades and what their experiences might mean for "Beanie."

In the first installment of "Inside The Numbers," we took a look at what might be expected from the Ohio State quarterbacks in 2007 based on the numbers of previous first-year starters.

The next question to attempt to answer through historical perspective deals with Chris Wells, the expected complement to the signal callers in '07. The sophomore-to-be whetted the appetite of Buckeye fans when he ran for 576 yards and seven touchdowns on 104 carries a year ago Now, with starter Antonio Pittman gone to the NFL, it will be up to Wells to anchor the Ohio State ground game behind an offensive line returning three starters.

It appears Wells will enter his sophomore season as the undisputed starter. Over the past 20 years, many heavily hyped tailbacks have taken over the starting reins at Ohio State, often with sterling results.

The 2005 national player of the year and Parade All-American at Akron Garfield, Wells will be just the third sophomore in the past 20 years to take over as the starting tailback.

1998 was the first year that Carlos Snow started half of OSU's games, and the Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education graduate – who ran for 7,856 yards and scored 104 touchdowns in high school – carried the ball 152 times for 775 yards and six scores. That year followed a freshman season in which Snow started the final three games and ran for 242 yards and a touchdown on 65 carries in those two starts.

The other sophomore to earn No. 1 back laurels in the past two decades is Antonio Pittman. Another Akron native, this one a graduate of Buchtel High School, Pittman toted the rock 243 times in 2005 for 1,331 yards and seven touchdowns as OSU went 10-2 and captured a Fiesta Bowl title over Notre Dame.

Without a doubt, Wells is the most touted tailback to come to Ohio State since Maurice Clarett stepped onto the Columbus campus in spring of 2002. By the end of fall camp, Clarett had earned the starting job as a true freshman and fought through injury troubles on the way to 222 carries, 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns.

A number of other talented backs have had excellent first years as the top option in the Buckeye backfield during the past two decades. Two high-school All-Americans in the mid-1990s would start on some of the most potent Buckeye attacks in recent memory.

In 1996, a high school All-American out of Euclid High School outside of Cleveland took over for Eddie George and did his best to make people forget about the Heisman Trophy winner. That year, junior Pepe Pearson ran for 1,484 yards, the sixth-most in OSU history and the second-most in the past 20 years. He did it on 299 carries and scored 17 touchdowns.

Two yeas later, Michael Wiley had a similar debut. Another high-school All-American, Wiley's junior year of 1998 saw him escape Pearson's shadow and run for 1,274 yards on 198 carries (an average of 6.4 yards per carry) and score 10 touchdowns. Wiley even shared time that year with Joe Montgomery, who averaged more than six yards per carry himself.

To complete the look at the last two decades, two of the most highly regarded recruits in Ohio State history took different paths to their starting roles. Taking the short route was Robert Smith, a two-time Ohio Mr. Football out of Euclid. During his first year of 1990, Smith started the final 10 games and carried the ball 177 times for 1,126 yards and eight touchdowns.

The long route belonged to Derek Combs. The 1996 Ohio Mr. Football and USA Today Offensive Player of the Year at nearby Grove City, Combs had to wait behind a stable of talented backs before he got his first shot at a starting job in 2001. He even had to split with Jonathan Wells (136 carries) that year, but Combs led the team with 888 yards and five scores on 175 yards.

The best back of them all, however, might have been one of the least hyped. Eddie George came to Columbus out of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and waited two years for a chance to start. When he got it, George exploded. He ran for 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1994 on 276 carries (5.2-yard average). A year later, George was the fifth Heisman winner in school history.

So what does it all mean? Taking a look at the numbers, those eight backs averaged 1,195 yards on 218 carries in their first years as starters, an average of 5.5 yards per carry. They also averaged 10.4 touchdowns. Such a year would be solid out of Chris Wells and place him in the top 20 seasons in OSU history for rushing yards.

Of course, other factors are at play. Unlike Wiley, who had Montgomery, or Combs, who had to split time with Jonathan Wells, Chris Wells figures to not have a back on the team that one would call the team's No. 1-A back. Maurice Wells has experience and freshmen Brandon Saine and Daniel Herron have potential, but "Beanie" enters 2007 as OSU's clear-cut No. 1 guy and the carries figure to be distributed proportionally.

Another way to look at it is to take a gander at how many rushes the tailback spot has received in past years under Jim Tressel. Since Tressel took over in 2001, he's had a tailback with more than 200 carries in four of his six years, and the lead tailback has averaged 211 carries per year.

However, in each of Tressel's six years, the lead tailback has had some sort of drain on his carries. In 2001, Jonathan Wells, whose 251 carries were the most for a back under Tressel, split time with Lydell Ross. In '02, Clarett fought the injury bug. Ross shared carries in '03 and '04 with Maurice Hall, Branden Joe and Brandon Schnittker and rarely impressed with his play. Pittman led the team in each of the last two years while splitting carries with Troy Smith in 2005 and Beanie Wells in '06.

Both of the experienced quarterbacks in the OSU system – Todd Boeckman and Robby Schoenhoft – are known more for their arms then their legs, giving Chris Wells a chance to earn more carries. In addition, Beanie's backups are talented but unproven and might not dent his touches.

With that in mind, it wouldn't be a shock for Beanie to approach the 250 carries or so. If he keeps his average around the 5.5 yards per carry he had in '06 and the tailbacks in this little study held, Wells could be on track for a season around 1,400 yards. No matter which way it's looked at, those predicting super-stardom for the sophomore might not be that far off after all.

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