DeKALB – Anthony Wells saw Chandler Harnish’s eyes spot a receiver behind him, and his instincts took over.
Wells stopped his pursuit of Northern Illinois’ quarterback and began dropping into coverage, all in one motion. With the screen pass lobbed in the air, Wells jumped. He knocked the ball down, showing athleticism rarely seen at defensive tackle.
Dave Doeren called it a great play. Wells wanted more.
“It felt good, but I should’ve caught it,” Wells said, unsatisfied after Thursday afternoon’s practice at Huskie Stadium. “But that happens. Got to move onto the next play.”
It was just one play, a couple seconds that could easily be lost in a muggy, August practice. But those instincts, matched with that athleticism, exemplified why Wells was moved from defensive end to defensive tackle in the spring. It also indicates the coaches may have been onto something.
“He’s a really talented guy inside,” Doeren said. “His get off (the line of scrimmage) and burst and athleticism, and the fact that he’s actually played in space helps him.”
After playing well on NIU’s backup squad during April’s spring game, Wells took plenty of momentum into the summer. He began fall camp starting alongside Nabal Jefferson, and he looks more like a starter each day.
But as easy as it looks now, Wells’ transition was difficult.
The sophomore put on 40 pounds, increasing his playing weight to 275. He said he’d like to gain another five before the Sept. 3 season opener against Army. To reach his target weight, Wells said he averaged about 5,000 calories a day. He ate between four to six times a day – chicken, pasta, mashed potatoes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, anything that sticks.
“It was real hard, big meals,” Wells said. “But I was just thinking about my teammates. Every time I didn’t feel like eating or I was too full, I just thought about the team. That’s what it’s all about, just helping the team.”
Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen appreciated Wells’ effort in the dining room.
“I just told him to eat everything, and that’s what he did,” said Nielsen, adding he knew Wells had the body to support such a weight gain. “That’s not easy to do for a guy who’s not used to doing it. When you have to constantly eat, that’s a tough task. Now some people might think that’s fun, but that gets old after a while.”
The key, Nielsen said, is that the extra 40 pounds haven’t compromised Wells’ natural athleticism. When Wells checked into fall camp, he said his 40-yard dash time was the same as the spring.
“That was the whole plan with me moving inside, so it’s worked out pretty good,” Wells said. “With my get off, my athleticism and my quickness, that could be my big advantage inside.”
After the spring game, Nielsen had a conversation with Wells. He laid out the offseason expectations, encouraged him to take care of his nutrition and workout program. Nielsen knew the sophomore could be a nice complement to starting defensive ends Sean Progar and Joe Windsor. He was anxious to see how everything would unfold.
Wells’ work isn’t complete. Nielsen said Wells still needs to improve his technique. The game has slowed, but a player has to mentally process plays faster when they’re playing closer to the football.
But considering how far Wells has come, Nielsen said he’s confident those improvements will be made.
“The first thing is he’s bought into playing defensive tackle,” Nielsen said. “That’s what the great thing about it is. He’s been an animal in the weight room and on the field as well. The first thing with him was mentally thinking, ‘Yes, I’m a defensive tackle.’ Since he’s done that, he’s done everything I’ve asked him to do.
“We’ve got a long way to go with him, but I couldn’t be more pleased with his work.”