Wolfe Has to Prove Himself Again

Most everyone thought Jerry Angelo would select a tailback to complement Cedric Benson in last weekend's NFL Draft, but few believed it would be Garrett Wolfe of Northern Illinois. The diminutive dynamo was a star at Holy Cross High School in River Grove before shredding the MAC for three seasons, and he couldn't be happier about staying close to home. But can he take the punishment on Sundays?

The Chicago Bears had a lot of success running the ball in the second half of 2006, and their dynamic duo in the backfield was a big reason why.

Underappreciated veteran Thomas Jones started all 16 games and led the team on the ground with 1,210 yards, but Cedric Benson really came on strong down the stretch and racked up 647 yards of his own. The two-pronged attack is all the rage in today's NFL, and the shiftiness of Jones was complemented beautifully by the power of Benson.

However, the relationship between the two of them was contentious at best, so the Bears did what they had to do when they traded Jones to the Jets on Mar. 5 and anointed Benson the starter.

If offensive coordinator Ron Turner was going to have another one-two punch in the backfield next season, GM Jerry Angelo would have to find him another ball-carrier. Adrian Peterson averages 4.7 yards per carry for his career and has done well every time he's been given the chance to play, but his real value is on special teams. Angelo turned to the draft and got his man in Round 3.

That man is Garrett Wolfe of Northern Illinois, the 5'7", 185-pound dynamo who ran wild in the MAC for three seasons to the tune of 5,172 yards and 52 touchdowns.

Originally touted as a second-day talent at best because of his small stature, Wolfe was actually selected ahead of bigger names like Michael Bush of Louisville and Antonio Pittman of Ohio State. Angelo may have reached a round too early, but this was a player he targeted long ago. Consistently clocked round 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, Wolfe will bring one element to the ground game that has been lacking for quite some time: the home run threat.

Director of college scouting Greg Gabriel was incredibly impressed when he had Wolfe in for a private workout at Halas Hall, especially with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

"They didn't throw to him as much as you would like [in college]," Gabriel said after the pick was made. "He had a lot of dump-off passes [but] not a lot of things downfield. But we threw to him downfield when he was here, and he caught everything. He adjusted to the ball really well."

And despite the fact that Wolfe did not play against elite competition week in and week out, Gabriel doesn't see that as a reason to dismiss his myriad accomplishments.

"There are a lot of good players that play in the Mid-American Conference," he said. "He was highly productive there. He was the Offensive Player of the Year this year. I think he led the country or [was] second in the country in rushing a year ago. Very highly productive player."

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Wolfe didn't stray too far from home to play his college ball, and now he gets to suit up for the team he loved as a kid in the Chicago suburb of River Grove.

"The Bears are a great franchise and a great football team," Wolfe said via conference call at Halas Hall shortly after being selected. "And me growing up in Chicago, I had the privilege to watch on a regular basis. I played high school football in this state. I played college football in this state. And to be able to play professional football in this state is something that I could have never put together. Things work themselves out in weird ways, but I am glad for this opportunity and I plan to make the most of it."

Back in 1997, a lot of the so-called experts figured Warrick Dunn was also too small despite departing Florida State as that powerhouse program's all-time leading rusher. Listed at just 5'9" and 180 pounds, he has missed only nine games during his 10-year tenure and topped 1,000 yards rushing in a season five times. Dunn's speed and elusiveness has made him surprisingly successful running between the tackles because – like Barry Sanders before him – defenders hardly ever get to deliver a clean shot.

Wolfe has followed Dunn's career and seems almost overwhelmed by the comparisons.

"He is a very talented football player," he said. "And to be mentioned in the same sentence as a guy like Warrick Dunn is an honor, and I have nothing but respect for him and what he has been able to accomplish. Not only at the collegiate level, but at a professional level, as well."

Northern Illinois head coach Joe Novak never really knew what he had in Wolfe until he was forced into the starting lineup because of an injury.

"We had a real good player – A.J. Harris – who played ahead of Garrett," Novak said. "He got hurt during the first half of one of our games. Garrett came in and ran the ball for 200 yards. After that, any worries we had about his durability or his ability were long gone."

Many skeptics believe Wolfe simply won't be able to survive on Sundays, but Novak learned his lesson after doubting his star pupil once before.

"I think he'll do exceedingly well in the NFL and should be able to get a starting role sooner rather than later," he said. "He's been productive all along – in high school, in college – and I see no reason for that trend to stop at this point. Is he big enough? That isn't the issue. This kid has speed, ability, and an overwhelming desire to succeed. He simply loves football."

But he's so small, Coach.

"All those hulking NFL veterans will be asking Garrett how much he weighs as Garrett burns by them on his way down the field."

John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and Editor in Chief of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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