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Not-so-big bad Wolfe (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 27, 2007 5:49PM; Updated: Tuesday February 27, 2007 9:27PM
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Which team will view Wolfe as something more than just a small back from a small conference (Mid-American Conference)? Which one will find value in how big he has come up in his career when he was pitted against some of the better defenses in college football, like when he ran for 171 yards in NIU's 2006 opener against Ohio State, or dented Michigan for 148 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown burst, in the Huskies' 2005 opener? Which one will decide that 5,176 yards rushing and 57 touchdowns in his three seasons of college action make him at least a candidate for situational work in the NFL? After all, a change-of-pace back can wind up making more than a part-time impact, as Jones-Drew proved again last season.

Wolfe knows he can't just point league scouts toward his game tapes and leave it at that, as much as he'd like to. As impressive as his collegiate statistics are, his measurables give many within the league a ready-made reason to discount his production and downplay his potential.

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"At times I do want them to do that, [just look at the tape], out of frustration,'' said Wolfe, who is unassuming and unfailingly polite. "People are entitled to their beliefs, though, and some of them feel I wouldn't have accomplished those same things playing in a bigger conference. I'm very proud of my accomplishments, but to a lot of these franchises, it doesn't mean a thing.

"My offensive line coach said it best when he said everything I've accomplished, I've accomplished with a Mid-American Conference offensive line. It wasn't like I was out there playing with a Big Ten offensive line. I wasn't running up and down the field against air. There were guys out there trying to tackle me. What I've done against the best should be my measuring stick. If you measure what I've done against the best, I think I'm in pretty elite company.''

Wolfe's calling card is his quickness and elusiveness, and a running style that seems to include having eyes behind his head. An undisclosed Senior Bowl week injury kept him from running his 40-yard dash at the Combine, but he consistently times in the low 4.4s, and did record the top showing in his running back grouping in both the three-cone drill (6.69 seconds) and the 20-yard shuttle (4.08) in Indy. He plans to run the 40 at Northern Illinois' pro day on March 21.

As much as Wolfe hopes Jones-Drew provided a reminder of the potential role that smaller backs can play in the NFL, the Jacksonville star is a much more physical presence than Wolfe is, with a more powerful build (5-7, 207) and running style. The 5-9, 180-pound Dunn is actually the closest to Wolfe in terms of similarity, and the Chicago native has long idolized the Falcons star.

"It's not only because we're similar in size,'' said Wolfe, who had five games of 196 rushing yards or more in 2006, including an Division I season-high 353-yard, three-touchdown day at Ball State. "He's an every-down running back. He's not a situational guy. He can carry the load and he's done that his whole life.''

There will be a key difference in Wolfe's draft story, of course. Dunn was a first-round pick of Tampa Bay's out of Florida State in 1997. Jones-Drew went in the second round to Jacksonville last year. Wolfe is projected as a second-day selection, and even he admits he's a long shot to climb into the third round. Then again, he's used to taking the long way around. He started out ninth on NIU's running back depth chart when he arrived on campus in 2002, where current Chargers running back Michael Turner was firmly entrenched as the starter.

"Me being 5-7, there's only so high a team is going to draft me any way,'' he said. "I could never be a first-round draft pick. I'm not going to be a second-round draft pick. But hopefully I could creep into the third round, or maybe be a fourth-rounder.

"I've fought from the bottom for everything. Nothing was handed to me, even the starting job at Northern Illinois. I fought for that and when opportunity knocked, I kicked down the door and took off running with it.''

How far will he get this time? Wolfe has this much going for him: In the NFL these days, shorter backs are getting a longer look.

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