Turner making most of long-awaited star turn

Matt Trowbridge

Garrett Wolfe likes to needle Michael Turner.

“When I text him, I talk about how big he looks in that uniform,” Wolfe said. “He doesn’t like that too much.”

That’s about the only thing Turner doesn’t like about being a Falcon. The 5-foot-10, 244-pound Turner, who held NIU’s career rushing record before the Bears’ Wolfe passed him, is playing even bigger than he looks in his first year in Atlanta after four years of backing up All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego.

“Michael just needed an opportunity,” said Wolfe, a backup for the Bears (3-2), who play at Atlanta (3-2) Sunday. “Now that he’s getting an opportunity, the world gets to see just how good he is.”

Turner averaged 57 carries his four seasons in San Diego. The two-time NCAA rushing runner-up has almost twice that many carries in his first five games as a Falcon, and leads the NFL in rushing with 543 yards.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Turner said on a teleconference Wednesday. “I’ve been patient. Now I’m making the most of the opportunity.”

In limited action, Turner broke off three of the longest 11 runs in San Diego history (83, 74 and 73 yards). Yet when he became an unrestricted free agent, Atlanta was the only team pursued him hard, signing Turner to a six-year, $34.5 million contract.

“By far they were the most aggressive team that really wanted me,” Turner said.

So he wanted them. Even though the Falcons were 3-13 last year.

“They’ve been through a tough stretch, but I didn’t care,” Turner said. “I was open-minded about coming here. You can’t predict when a team is ready to make a turnaround.”

A lot of teams plugged their running backs holes in a draft that was deep in running backs. The Bears, for instance, took star rookie Matt Forte in the second round, rather than sign native son Turner, who graduated from North Chicago High School.

“My family was wanting me to be a Bear, but I knew I couldn’t control what they wanted to do,” Turner said. “They decided to go through the draft and they picked up a good running back in Matt Forte.

“A lot of guys came out in the draft this year. That played a part in why there wasn’t a big run for me, but it was fine. Different teams take different directions.”

Atlanta had as many high draft picks as almost any team with two picks in the first round, one in the second and three in the third. But after watching video of all 228 carries of Turner’s career, the Falcons wanted to run in only one direction.

“We wanted to make sure Michael Turner was a Falcon as quickly as we could make that happen,” first-year coach Mike Smith said.

The Falcons cut five-time 1,000-yard rusher Warrick Dunn to make room for Turner and paired him with Jerious Norwood, who has 249 yards this year and is averaging more than 6 yards a carry for the third season in a row.

But this isn’t a platoon. Turner is the main man, carrying three times as often as Norwood.

And that’s why Turner is a Falcon. Atlanta wanted him to carry the load. A lot of other teams viewed him as a platoon runner who couldn’t play every down.

“We wanted to have a guy who can run the ball between the tackles and also had the speed to take it the distance,” Smith said. “Michael fit that bill.

“We didn’t think there was any concern of him being a featured back. He’s a guy who gets stronger as the game goes on.”

Turner knew he’d have to wait his turn when he was drafted to back up Tomlinson. But it’s not as if he planned this.

“I didn’t draw up a five-year plan,” Turner said. “I just wanted to make sure I was hanging in there year-in and year-out and making it hard for them to get rid of me.”

So he played special teams. He starred as an understudy.

And now he’s made the most of his first starring role.

“He gives us problems,” Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher said. “He gives everybody matchup problems.”

“He’s making his name,” Bears defensive tackle Marcus Harrison said.

Matt Trowbridge can be reached at (815) 987-1383