MINNEAPOLIS — The Gopher football team’s leading tackler also leads Minnesota in interceptions through three games this season. He has a team-high five pass break ups and has also registered a tackle for loss.
This same player earned numerous accolades after two interceptions in the Gophers’ season-opening win against UNLV, which earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors as well as the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week.
Yet with everything sophomore safety Derrick Wells has accomplished so far this season, it’s as if he’s doing so to prove his doubters wrong.
Wells wasn’t highly recruited out of Lehigh Acres (Fla.) High School. Only Minnesota and Ball State of the Mid-American Conference bothered to offer Wells a scholarship. At one point, Wells didn’t have any stars awarded to him by recruiting sites, although Scout.com eventually listed him as a two-star recruit.
“I used that as having a chip on my shoulder, that they didn’t recruit me from down there,” Wells said of the schools in his home state of Florida, as well as the surrounding area. “I’m just glad I’m up here, being able to play up here and make the team better.”
While all the SEC schools passed on Wells, the Gophers gave him a chance. Minnesota’s coaching staff was tipped off about Wells by one of his high school coaches, Todd Nichols, Lehigh’s defensive coordinator at the time. Nichols had developed a relationship with Gophers coach Jerry Kill and his staff during Kill’s time at Northern Illinois.
“He called and said, ‘Hey, guys are making a mistake on this kid. He can play,'” said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. “We took him for his word.”
After seeing Wells play, the Gophers extended him an offer just before the signing period began. Wells left Florida for Minneapolis and hasn’t looked back.
After appearing in 11 games as a freshman cornerback last season, Wells made the transition this offseason to safety. He bulked up to 195 pounds, increasing his physicality while still maintaining his speed.
Through three games, Wells has made a team-high 26 tackles (17 solo tackles), and his two interceptions against UNLV proved to be key. The second of the two came in the third overtime, which helped set up a game-winning field goal for the Gophers.
Part of the transition to safety has also brought an increased responsibility as the “quarterback of the defense.” It’s an added responsibility that Wells has thus far relished during his sophomore season.
“He works extremely hard at it. He’s very humble and he doesn’t say a lot,” Claeys said of Wells. “He plays hard, and the kids trust him. He gets people lined up. It’s been a blessing, it really has, to have him around as a person and a player.”
Wells is one of three Gophers safeties still learning the position. Like Wells, Brock Vereen made the transition from cornerback to safety this past offseason. And Cedric Thompson didn’t play safety at all in high school, so it’s still a learning process for him as well.
All three have made a smooth transition so far, but none better than Wells.
“We’ll always recruit corners. If they get big enough and tackle well, they need to go to safety,” Claeys said. “That’s how you get athletic safeties. So that really was Derrick’s case.”
Wells is one reason why Minnesota’s pass defense is much improved from last season. The Gophers have given up just 162.7 passing yards per game through three games this season, second-fewest among all Big Ten teams. Only Michigan (157.7) has allowed fewer passing yards per game. Last season, Minnesota ranked eighth out of 12 Big Ten teams with 216.7 passing yards per game allowed.
As good as the Gophers’ pass defense has been through non-conference play, Minnesota fill face perhaps its stiffest test of the season in a Syracuse team that is currently third in college football with 379.7 passing yards per game.
The Gophers believe Wells will be up to the challenge this Saturday and every Saturday. That’s been the case in Minnesota’s first three games this season — even if other schools never saw that potential in Wells.
“That’s just motivation to get better every day,” Wells said. “I’m just trying to get better to make the team better.”
In the meantime, he’s proving his Gophers coaches right. They had a gut feeling about Wells, and it’s paying dividends on the field.
“Some guys you coach just have instincts and can go catch things. It’s easy for them. It’s easy for Derrick,” Kill said. “The game slows down for him. He’s a special player right now.”