McGrane: Showing the Way is Worth the Wait for Wells
Aug. 18, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Showing the Way is Worth the Wait for Wells
David Wells is on the John Mackey Preseason Award Watch List, an honor annually bestowed on the top tight end in the nation.
He’s been named to the Wuerffel Trophy Watch List, a distinction saluting the FBS player that best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.
He is a preseason all-Mountain West selection.
And, for the immediate future, a tutor, far less by choice than by chance.
As his teammates endure the sweltering bump and grind of fall camp, the endless reps and the resultant bruising, Wells, San Diego State’s touted senior tight end, treks to the training room for reasons of his own, the best to expedite healing of both body and soul.
Sidelined by a foot fracture incurred during an agility drill more than two months ago, Wells largely has been relegated to spectator. With the season opener two weeks removed, his are days of treatment and time on a treadmill, while maintaining the weight room regimen orchestrated by strength and conditioning coach Adam Hall.
In the interim, however, Wells, who maintains he’ll be ready for Week 1 when the Aztecs host UC Davis on Sept. 2, is anything but a buttoned-up bystander, drawing from a font of lessons learned to facilitate forward progress among the team’s remaining tight ends.
And if it’s not what he envisioned as part of his swan song season with the Aztecs, it is nonetheless part of the drill. Head coach Rocky Long has always given seniors considerable sway, but not without expecting that they teach by example.
“You don’t realize how much you miss playing with all of your teammates until you’re not,” Wells said. “Right now, they have me helping out with the younger tight ends and just trying to be a leader out there. I want to be able to help out the team any way that I can in practice.
“It’s not any fun being out there on the first day of camp and getting in a three-point stance and having somebody tell you, ‘Just wait, you’re time is coming, you’ll be fine.’ You’re being asked to watch and observe and just take mental reps. I’m trying to do that with every play and just make sure (the tight ends) are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
They would do well to listen.
Wells, whose ability to move mountains in the trenches has not gone unnoticed by the NFL community, is coming off a junior season in which he also caught 25 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns. Deemed the 10th-best tight end in the 2018 draft by CBS Sports, he caught all but four passes thrown his way in 2016, the top percentage (86.2) in the country among tight ends according to Pro Football Focus.
None of which makes his current situation easier to bear. While SDSU arguably possesses one of the top tight end quartets in the country with the inclusion of senior Darryl Richardson and sophomores Parker Houston and Kahale Warring, it’s the no-nonsense Wells who started every game last season. His 25 catches were just two fewer than team co-leaders Mikah Holder and Donnel Pumphrey, and his average of 21.0 yards per game ranked second. His four touchdown receptions tied for 22nd most in the country among tight ends.
“I thought I did pretty well last season,” he said. “I thought I showed out fairly well in each game, especially with my run blocking. And by the end of the season, I think I also showed I was a pretty good pass catcher. I’m happy that people have taken notice of that.
“Getting noticed in the preseason is great, but I want to be a finalist at the end of the season for the Mackey Award. I want to be first-team all-conference. I want to be an all-American. Those are just expectations that I have for myself. Whatever happens, happens, but once I’m back out on that field I’m just going to try and go out there and prove it. I want to do anything I can to help the team.”
It also means working alongside former Aztecs tight end Adam Roberts, who is helping oversee the team’s tight ends as a first-year graduate assistant. Roberts was a senior when Wells played in 12 of SDSU’s 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2014.
“We had a really good relationship when we played together,” Roberts said. “When David came in as a freshman, I was the starting tight end, so I was kind of in a position to coach and mentor him then. Now I get to do it (as a coach), but there’s not much I can coach him up on. He’s really learned a lot.
“He was always a really good athlete and really smart. He was able to learn almost the entire playbook as a freshman and picked things up real quickly. The only thing was — and he might not like me saying this — but he was a little soft, because he’d played a lot of receiver and quarterback in high school. He kind of needed to toughen up a little bit, which he definitely has done.
“But the biggest growth that I’ve seen in him are his leadership qualities. He holds everybody accountable, including me as a coach.”
It’s those attributes, as well as his play on the field, that give Long ample ammunition to adjudge Wells the best tight end in the league.
Now comes the matter of proving his head coach’s assessment is not without merit. The 6-5, 255-pound Wells, who turned down offers from Utah and Iowa State, as well as conference rivals Colorado State, Nevada and Fresno State, settled on SDSU because of its punishing pro-style attack, an approach that demands its tight ends be eager to brawl.
“All of these spread teams these days will recruit tight ends, but they won’t use them,” Wells said. “They’ll turn them into receivers without them knowing that half of the game is blocking. Or, in the case of our team, 75 percent of the game is blocking.
“Coach Long has the kind of mindset that we’re going to be the toughest guys on the field and, at tight end, you really do have to be the toughest guy on the field. You not only have to be able to run routes, you have to get down and nasty with the big boys in the trenches.
“Catching the ball is always great, but I love getting nasty with dudes and throwing them around and trying to manhandle people. You may only get four or five catches a game, so you have to have the mindset that when you do get those opportunities you better make them count. It doesn’t matter to me if I get one catch or 10 catches, as long as we’re winning I don’t care. I’ll block as hard as I can every single play for Rashaad (tailback Rashaad Penny), for Chap (quarterback Christian Chapman), for all of those guys. I’m going to sell out every single play.”
Which, in 2017, could prove crucial. With an offensive line that is likely to feature a pair of redshirt freshmen at left tackle and left guard, the contributions of the team’s tight ends in the run game may factor even more.
“Being a senior, I know this offense pretty well,” Wells said. “So when we get into the huddle, it’s going to be demanded that these young (offensive linemen) follow in our footsteps. You have to bring the juice every single play. If I were to go out there and take a few plays off, these young guys are going to see that and there’s the danger that they’ll follow you. Antonio (senior right guard Rosales) and I are the only two seniors on the O-line, so we have to be demanding that everyone be great on every single play.
“These young guys definitely have the potential to be great. Now it’s just a matter of getting their mindset to where we need it to be. Last year, we had an extremely tough and experienced offensive line. That was the culmination of a few years of guys constantly getting after it and building themselves up. Daniel Brunskill was a guy who moved from tight end to offensive tackle who absolutely dominated and never missed a beat. You had Nico (Siragusa) and Arthur Flores and Kwayde Miller. Now these young guys are seeing what it takes. We’re getting them in the film room, we’re forcing them to come in and lift (weights), making it mandatory for everybody to be there.
“Now that they’re getting comfortable with the playbook, it’s time for them to step on the gas pedal. But I have all the faith in the world in them. I really think that they’re going to do great things this year.”
A year to be savored by Wells, who despite being temporarily idled, is acutely aware that the clock is winding down on his college career.
“It’s definitely a driving force for me, and there are a lot of seniors on this team who are feeling the same way,” he said. “We all came in here four or five years ago, and now it’s our last time to go get it. We have 12 chances, at least, to try and make the best of our final season, and I can see it in the seniors’ eyes that they want to do great things. We don’t want to be the class that just enjoyed the ride for the first three or four years of our careers. We want to make this program into a dynasty, and winning a championship is definitely our goal.
“(The NFL) has been a goal of mine since I was a kid, and now that things are kind of coming to fruition, it’s sort of weird. Suddenly, it’s your senior year, and you’re getting this notoriety that you never thought you’d get. Now there’s a chance to go to the NFL and I’m doing everything I possibly can to make that happen. My parents (Bryan and Shari Wells) are selling out for me, trying to support me in every way they can. They’ve been there my whole life, helping me to get to where I’ve wanted to be. I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Or more anxious to play.