Chris Wells is the clear No. 1 in the backfield after rushing for almost 600 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman, and then just getting bigger and better in the months since then.
KIICHIRO SATO / AP Enlarge
COLUMBUS - When Antonio Pittman dashed out the door a year early headed for the NFL, creating a void at tailback for Ohio State, nobody stood around fretting over a lack of capable, talented ball carriers.
The Buckeyes are loaded at running back, as usual, and the official line has been that they would replace Pittman with a committee of players - some big, some small, some fast, some powerful.
Well, there are enough high-caliber tailbacks in the Ohio State camp to cover every facet of the game, but if a committee approach is employed, it is clear on the eve of the season opener against Youngstown State just who the chairman of that committee is.
It is sophomore Chris "Beanie" Wells, who served an apprenticeship last season behind Pittman, a fellow native of Akron. Wells is the clear No. 1 in the backfield after rushing for almost 600 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman, and then just getting bigger and better in the months since then.
"We've got a lot of real good running backs, and I'm not gonna worry about who is listed where or who gets how many carries," Wells said as the Buckeyes went through their August workouts in preparation for the 2007 season. "If you protect the ball and make plays, then you play. And we've got plenty of guys who can make plays."
Wells is included in that group, with his 52-yard touchdown run in the win over Michigan last November a fresh enough image.
"He's talented, and he's big. I know he's a load to try and tackle out there," offensive lineman Kirk Barton said about Wells, who was the running back Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often went to in short yardage and goal line situations. "If you're a safety or a cornerback, or even a linebacker, that's a lot of running back coming at you, and he is so strong. He's going to have a great career here."
Wells (6-1, 235) played in all 13 games last year and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Tressel said Wells, a Parade All-American who was named the nation's top high school running back as a senior when he rushed for 2,134 yards and 27 touchdowns, is ready to fill whatever role the Buckeyes have for him.
"We'll play a number of running backs, and our plan is to rotate several guys in there and keep them fresh. But Beanie is the starter and we're very comfortable with him back there," Tressel said.
"He's a kid who came in here early last year, went through spring ball before his freshman season, and he's really grown and matured. I'm anxious to see the kinds of things he'll be able to do for us out there."
The primary backup is Maurice Wells, a junior from Jacksonville and no relation to Beanie. More compact at 5-10 and 195 pounds, he had flirted with transferring after serving behind Pittman in a lesser role the past two seasons, but decided to stick it out with the Buckeyes.
"It's tough for a lot of players to not be on the field as much as you'd like, since every guy here was a star in high school, and used to playing all of the time," Maurice Wells said. "But I wasn't really ready to play at this level when I got here, and now I believe there is so much more I can do for my team. I am confident in whatever role the coaches have for me, and in any situation they put me in. When I do have the chance to step up and help the team, I have to take advantage of those opportunities."
Maurice Wells played in all 13 games last season, carrying the ball 46 times for 171 yards and one touchdown. As a high school senior, he had a nine-game total of 1,908 yards and 18 touchdowns. Wells also set the Florida single-game high school rushing record with 429 yards in two and a half quarters in a rout of Stanton Prep his junior year.
"Chris and I are two totally different styles of running back," Maurice Wells said. "It'll be up to the coaches on how they want to use us in the offense. I know we're both ready to play some football and see how it works out."
Tressel likes the fact he has replaced a veteran like Pittman with a couple of guys who have considerable experience.
"Chris Wells and Mo Wells are two guys that are battle tested, and we need them to rise up and have great years," Tressel said.
The third back in the mix is freshman Brandon Saine (6-1, 220), the reigning Mr. Football in Ohio after he rushed for 1,895 yards and 27 touchdowns last fall while leading Piqua to a state championship. Saine had 240 yards on 30 carries and three touchdowns in the title game. Last spring he won the state track titles in the 100 and 400 meters.
Tressel said he definitely plans to play Saine this weekend, and he could see a time fairly soon where the Buckeyes tweak their offense in order to get Saine the ball more.
"There will be a day, probably not today, but he has that type of ability that we'll figure out some things to highlight," Tressel said. "But at this point in time, we're just trying to progress in who we are as a whole group. But I think there's no question, there will be a day that you'll have to know where number three is."
Defensive end Lawrence Wilson, who gets plenty of looks at the Wells tandem and the freshman Saine on the practice field, summed up their talents in three categories.
"Beanie is a power guy, Brandon Saine is a speed guy and Mo Wells is more of a shifty type," Wilson said. "I think that each brings something new to the table and they'll all complement each others' talents. I really like our options back there."
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