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Wolfe may be small, but his Heisman hopes are big

    MEMORANDUM
    To: Heisman Trophy voters
    From: A fellow Heisman voter
    Re: Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe

DEKALB, Ill. -- Talked to the pip-squeak today.

They weren't kidding; he really is just 5-7. That makes him only 53½ inches taller than the Heisman Trophy itself. If Wolfe were any smaller, he'd be carry-on luggage.
No way is he one of my three Heisman ballot finalists.

But, OK, just to humor him, let's look at his stats. Wolfe is averaging -- what the hell? -- 223.8 rushing yards per game. That has to be a misprint, right? That not only makes him the leading rusher in Division I-A but also gives him a better per-game rushing average than 114 of the 119 I-A teams.

Of course, those are obviously inflated numbers. Who'd he run against -- the Burger King guy? Uh, he actually opened the season with 171 rushing yards and another 114 receiving yards against No. 1-ranked Ohio State. Afterward, Buckeyes senior defensive linemen Jay Richardson and Quinn Pitcock sought out Wolfe on the field.

"Man, you're a beast," Richardson told him. "It was hell trying to get to you."

I'm sure they were just being polite. Or maybe not. Turns out this isn't the first time big-name opponents have gushed about Wolfe. NIU coach Joe Novak was catching a flight in the Detroit airport this summer when he ran into Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. Carr's team beat Northern Illinois 33-17 in the 2005 opener, but not before Wolfe gained 148 yards on just 17 carries.

"Hey, he's really good," said Carr to Novak at Detroit Metro.

And the week after the Michigan loss, Northwestern beat NIU 38-37 despite three touchdowns and 245 rushing yards by Wolfe. Minutes after the game, Northwestern coach Randy Walker, who was an undersized college running back himself, approached the NIU star.

"I have the utmost respect for you," Walker said that day. "You're my idol. You play like you're 225 pounds."

Wolfe, 177 pounds -- maybe -- calls it the greatest compliment he has ever been paid. "That's something I'll remember forever," he says.

He should -- the late, great Walker didn't use such words lightly.

OK, so in review: Wolfe leads the nation in rushing, has put up bona fides against Ohio State, fellow Mid-American Conference members (353 yards and three TDs -- two others were called back -- against Ball State) and still has Iowa, among others, on the schedule. He also leads the country in all-purpose yards and scoring, and he is averaging more yards per rush (8.6) in a single season than former Heisman winners Barry Sanders and record-holder Mike Rozier (7.8).

But he's a little darter, right? Nobody 5-7 and 170-something can survive running up the middle.

"I really think a lot of schools were scared off by his size," Novak says. "I was. I never imagined he'd carry the ball 300 times."

But he does -- and between the tackles, too. Perhaps I misjudged him, just like Novak.

"Quit weighing and measuring the kid," Novak says, "and just watch him."

I'm still trying to figure out how a 5-7, 160-pound high school senior who dreaded classes, grew up in what he calls "one of the better bad neighborhoods" of tough west side Chicago, and was ignored by almost every recruiter once they saw his grade transcripts, conceivably could surpass Sanders' all-time single-season rushing record of 2,628 yards.

Here's how: He was better than anyone ever imagined, and he got his academic act together just in time to qualify as an NIU freshman. Otherwise, he was going to forget about becoming the first in his family to go away to college and instead join the Chicago police force.

Wolfe was such an afterthought that his signing at NIU barely made his high school newspaper. Novak says he didn't know what to expect.

"He was either going to be great, or a bust," he says.

Novak is as old-school as blocking sleds. He doesn't believe in padding stats, which is why Wolfe was on the sidelines for almost the entire second half of NIU's Sept. 23 rout of Indiana State. By then, Wolfe had 198 yards and four TDs. He could have had double that if he had played the whole game.

So I ask Novak what he'd do with a 2006 Heisman ballot.

"I'm partial," he says. "But I think the kid deserves to be considered."

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'll buy that. I'll buy it because NIU is 4-2, plays in the MAC, and will have played against Ohio State and Iowa. I'll buy it because Wolfe isn't a gimmick runner; he gains the hard yards, and he does it against defenses that have everybody but the marching band packed in the box. And I'll buy it because his numbers are too amazing to ignore.

Wolfe doesn't even know how many rushing yards he has this season. "More than a thousand," he says. Lots more: 1,343. But he does know how many touchdowns (14) he has "because yards don't win football games, points do."

Keep this up and Wolfe at least deserves an invitation to the Heisman presentation ceremony in New York. He knows he doesn't have the name recognition of Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson or Ohio State's Troy Smith. "I imagine they can taste it," Wolfe says of the Heisman.

Wolfe would like a Heisman menu, too. In a rare moment of patting himself on the shoulder pads, he says he'd vote for himself No. 1 on the Heisman ballot -- if he continues to put up the yardage and TD numbers. Moments later, he's gushing about Smith, Peterson and Quinn.

My recommendation to my fellow Heisman voters: Keep an open mind, and keep a No. 2 pencil with an eraser handy. Wolfe isn't going to make our decisions easy.

Good for him. Good for college football.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.