When Derrick Wells took the field a year ago for the Gophers season opener at UNLV, the cornerback-turned-safety was excited to make his first career start and ready to show coach Jerry Kill that he could help his team win big games.
The sophomore did just that in the Gophers’ 30-27 triple-overtime victory by ending the Rebels’ final possession with an interception in that third OT. That put an exclamation point on a night in which Wells led the Gophers with eight tackles and also picked off a fourth-quarter pass.
But Wells, who still is irked by his under-recruitment, might have left Las Vegas that night a winner in more ways than one.
“I just wanted people to know my name,” Wells said after practice Tuesday. “I wanted to get my name out there and let everyone know, whoever was sleeping on me, that I was a good player and the people I’m around are good players.”
Returning to cornerback for his junior season, the position for which he was recruited, Wells is confident the Gophers secondary will be even better than it was during the 6-7 season in 2012, one that ended in the team’s first bowl appearance since Wells arrived from Lehigh (Fla.) High School.
Wells had 80 tackles in his senior season at Lehigh, following a junior season in which he helped the team advance to the Class 3A state quarterfinals. Growing up in Florida, Wells had top-tier college programs in his back yard. He was listed as a two-star recruit by Rivals, but didn’t get major attention from any of them.
Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel recalls Wells looking good on tape. But ultimately, he said, it was through word-of-mouth that Wells caught the attention of the Gophers coaching staff. Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys knew Todd Nichols, one of Wells’ coaches at Lehigh. Nichols put in a good word for his player.
“Sometimes you can’t minimize the relationships you have in coaching,” Sawvel said. “Todd was like, ‘You guys have to take him. He’s a really good player. He’s being under-recruited.’ So we did, and it worked out for us.”
In 2011, Wells joined a secondary Sawvel described as “thin.” The Gophers finished 10th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense the year before. Wells came in, immediately added weight to his 6-foot frame, and became just what the Gophers needed, Sawvel said. Last year, the Gophers finished tied for third in the conference in the same category.
After transitioning from cornerback to safety for his sophomore season, Wells is on the move again, this time back to cornerback. Sawvel said his team made too many mistakes at corner last season. He is hopeful that putting one of the Gophers’ best defensive players back in that role will help reduce the errors.
“I think if you asked me who’s got the potential to be a shutdown corner, I’d tell you Derrick Wells,” Claeys said. “He should be able to go after people and not give up big plays. To me, that’s a shutdown corner — you don’t give up the big play.”
Regardless of who starts at cornerback for the Gophers’ season opener against UNLV on Aug. 29 at TCF Bank Stadium, Sawvel said it will be his first start at the position. His players might be inexperienced, but Sawvel isn’t worried about them.
Wells has shown he can succeed as a Division I football player; now, Sawvel says, is his chance to prove he can be an elite Big Ten cornerback.
And sometimes, the opportunity to surprise people can be all the motivation a guy needs.
“I don’t think you ever diminish the under-recruited card on a kid,” Sawvel said. “I think there’s times that you do break that out, that you do say, ‘A lot of people didn’t believe in you. And now it’s your turn to prove these people wrong.’ ”