Garrett Wolfe looked far too small to be a workhorse running back, yet he become the fourth player in NCAA history to top 1,500 yards rushing three times. His average of 6.4 yards per carry at Northern Illinois University is an NCAA record for players with at least 780 career carries. The NCAA’s smallest star rusher (5-foot-7, 185 pounds) has now become the NFL’s shortest special teams tackler.
Garrett Wolfe looked far too small to be a workhorse running back, yet he become the fourth player in NCAA history to top 1,500 yards rushing three times. His average of 6.4 yards per carry at Northern Illinois University is an NCAA record for players with at least 780 career carries.
NIU’s all-time leading rusher doesn’t run anymore. He never really did in the NFL. The Chicago Bears, who drafted him in the third round in 2007, tried to turn him into a third-down back. But with Matt Forte and Chester Taylor - with more than 100 catches between them last year - ahead of Wolfe, the Bears don’t even need Wolfe on third downs any more.
The NCAA’s smallest star rusher (5-foot-7, 185 pounds) has now become the NFL’s shortest special teams tackler.
"I don’t think there’s anybody else as short as him, but there’s not a lot of big guys as tough as he is," Bears special teams coach Dave Toub said Tuesday.
Wolfe fans can still see him cut, dart and accelerate through holes in training camp. But when the season starts, Wolfe’s opportunities look more limited than ever. Chicago signed Taylor to back up Forte and also has Khalil Bell, a tough inside runner who gained 220 yards in less than half a season as a rookie.
Last year should have been Wolfe’s best opportunity. Forte struggled and backup Kevin Jones was hurt all year. But then Wolfe got hurt, too.
He missed the final eight games with a lacerated kidney. Bell replaced him and fared well, running 72 yards on his first career carry.
Now, Wolfe sees more runners than ever ahead of him on the depth chart.
"It definitely doesn’t get easier, because as you are getting older, the NFL is getting younger," Wolfe said.
"It’s been hard throughout my entire career. There have always been so many talented guys. But that’s the name of the game. It’s the NFL. It’s the best of the best. There are only about 1,700 of us in the world. That makes us an elite group of guys."
But instead of being one of the glamour guys as a running back, Wolfe’s NFL fortunes hang on the ultimate grunt job of special teams. Wolfe had never played special teams before the NFL, but he led the Bears with 21 special teams tackles his second season.
"Immediately he made an impact and made some nice tackles in open space," Toub said.
So the Bears tried him on the punt coverage team. Once again, Wolfe excelled as the personal protector for punter Brad Maynard. He’s also seen time on the kickoff and punt return teams.
"He gets down there first and makes tackles in space and is smart enough to be the captain of our punt team," Toub said. "He’s got really good football instincts.
"Some people are good tacklers in space and some aren’t. He is. So you have to utilize a guy like that."
"Special teams has been my niche," Wolfe said. "It gives me an opportunity to show my quickness and to continue to compete.
"You get to go out there and fly around and make things happen. As long as you make the play and you do it in the Chicago Bears fashion, which is in an aggressive way, you can do no wrong on special teams."
"That’s what’s kept me around, being a three- and four-phase starter on special teams," Wolfe added. "This year will be no different. Just coming out and making an NFL team every year is an accomplishment. It’s a very tough league. I’ve been blessed to be here this long. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon."
Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.