FLAGSTAFF (AP) — Beanie Wells seems comfortable with the idea that this could be his breakout season in the NFL.
The quick, powerful running back from Ohio State enters his second pro season healthy and confident in his abilities, a far cry from his rookie training camp, when he was slowed by an ankle problem and dogged by a reputation of being prone to injury. He had to learn patience as he slowly worked into the offense behind starter Tim Hightower.
“My goal is to be a lot more productive than I was last year,” he said. “If that comes with a breakout season, so be it. I’m happy with that.”
Coach Ken Whisenhunt believes in a two-back system, with Wells and Hightower again sharing the duties. Wells, obviously, would rather be the No. 1 back all by himself.
“I ain’t going to lie, it’s very hard,” he said. “I want to be the guy, he wants to be the guy, and we just have to go from there.”
As for Whisenhunt’s two-back beliefs, a concept he used to great success when he was offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Wells just smiled.
“Who knows how he really feels deep down?” Wells said.
Whisenhunt is well aware of Wells’ desire to play a bigger role.
“Beanie is a good young man,” the coach said after the team’s morning practice on Friday. “He’s excited about what he’s doing, and you really can see the energy from him on the field.”
Wells acknowledges that he had some rough days in his rookie season. Asked what he learned, the answer comes quickly.
“Patience,” he said. “I didn’t get on the field like I wanted to at the beginning of the season, but I was able to cope with that. I had a great group of guys around me that showed me it is a marathon, it’s not a 100-yard sprint. It takes times to develop into a top NFL player.”
Then there was the problem of being away from home for so long. Wells, who turns 22 on Saturday, went to his coach in midseason to say he was homesick.
“I got here in July,” Wells said. “I didn’t go home until November to see my family or anything, so it was rough.”
After Wells rushed for 72 yards on 13 carries in Arizona’s 41-21 victory over the Bears in Chicago on Nov. 8, Whisenhunt let the rookie go home to Akron, Ohio, for a few days.
It helped “a whole lot,” Wells said.
In the next game, at home against Seattle on Nov. 15, Wells gained 85 yards in 16 carries and scored twice in a 31-20 victory.
Wells’ biggest game came Dec. 20 at Detroit, when he gained 110 yards on 17 attempts in a 31-24 win that clinched the Cardinals’ second consecutive NFC West title.
In the playoffs, Wells had 91 yards on 14 carries in the 51-45 overtime wild card win over Green Bay.
Overall, the Arizona running game improved in the later stages of the season, and Whisenhunt believes it should be better behind the team’s revamped offensive line this year.
With some uncertainty at quarterback — Matt Leinart taking over for the retired Kurt Warner — Wells’ explosive running game could provide some needed balance to the passing attack.
“He had some pretty big games for us later in the season, and obviously feeling more comfortable with the offense helps.” Whisenhunt said. “And he’s in a … really good group. You’ve got a strong veteran presence in Jason Wright, who helps these guys, and Tim is doing a good job, as has since he’s been here.”
The next time he goes home to Akron, Wells joked, he could unseat LeBron James as the city’s most famous son.
“I’ll take that ring,” Wells said. “I was telling Jason and those guys, when I go home, I officially put on the crown. I’m the king.”