As the 2010 football season wound down, Derrick Wells remembers getting angry. Not at his Lehigh (Fla.) Senior High School team, which had rallied from an 0-4 start to post a winning record and make the regional final. Not at himself, considering he had made 80 tackles, been chosen for an all-star game, and been selected second-team all-southern Florida by the local newspaper.
No, Wells was angry at Miami. And Florida Atlantic. And South Florida. Heck, Florida State and Florida and Georgia, too, for that matter.
"I still have a chip on my shoulder because they didn't recruit me down there," the 19-year-old Gophers safety said. "I didn't have offers from anybody."
Well, that's not entirely true. Ball State, a Mid-American Conference school located 1,000 miles away, had inquired about his availability. But Wells, who began his senior year as a scrawny 160-pound cornerback who had been assigned the ranking of "zero stars" by recruiting websites, kept waiting for coaches' phone calls that never came.
If only the recruiting services could have pictured what he would become. Now in his second season at Minnesota, Wells is arguably the Gophers' most valuable defensive player through the first three games -- and probably the most unlikely. Wells has led the team in tackles in all three games, picked off a pair of passes, and most importantly, called out alignments and adjustments for a defense that has yet to allow a 30-yard gain this season.
"Derrick Wells is playing as well as anyone," coach Jerry Kill said. "He's done a great job."
Fitting the Kill mold
Wells also stands as perhaps the best current example of the quintessential Jerry Kill player, an underappreciated, undersized, under-recruited overachiever, someone who works hard to grow into a role far beyond expectations. The sort of player that Kill is counting on to turn around an underachieving program.
"If you look at our career as a coaching staff, we've been able to win because of kids like [Wells]," said Tracy Claeys, Kill's defensive coordinator since 1999. "If they were more developed, they might have gone to bigger schools. We've got to rely on kids who aren't developed, and develop them. As long as they've got the athletic ability, you take a chance that you can."
And they take those raw materials and put them into roles for which they're suited. After a freshman season largely spent on special teams, Wells devoted himself to the weight room, putting on muscle.
"All of a sudden, we said, 'Holy cow, he's 195 pounds,' " Claeys said. "That's how you find athletic safeties."
They find them with the help of those they respect, too, which is how Wells ended up in maroon and gold. Baffled by Wells' lack of suitors, Lehigh Senior High defensive coordinator Todd Nichols called an old friend from his days in Illinois just after that 2010 season ended: Claeys. "He said, 'Hey, guys are making a mistake on this kid. He can play,' " said Claeys, who had just been named the Gophers defensive coordinator. "We took him at his word."
They checked the film, of course, but mostly trusted their friend. And when he visited campus, the Gophers staff was convinced by an X's-and-O's discussion.
"When [recruits] come for official visits, we hold position meetings. We put them on the chalkboard, let 'em draw [plays and coverages], ask them questions," Claeys said. "You can tell kids who are football smart, who have some instincts when it comes to the game."
That's been Wells, who committed to the Gophers the week before signing day, happy to have a football home, then adapted to his new position better than the coaches could have imagined.
Not bad for a kid nobody wanted.
"The funny thing was, he had no stars. Then all of a sudden [after the Gophers' offer], they give him two. So that tells you what that's worth," Claeys said. "When you get a chance to see people live, you have to trust your own feelings. I know some people count stars, and think we don't know what the hell we're doing. But we're going to recruit kids who we think can play, no matter what anybody else thinks."