Out Of Bounds: Reserves should be ready to fill holes

Keith Farner

We’ve arrived at the time of year when Hilltopper Nation begins peeking toward the gridiron.

There was a decent contingent of Big Red faithful on hand Saturday at the sun-splashed Red-White game. Some of the more bold fans have already submitted predictions for 2004.

And so there isn’t a better time to look at the roster and what kind of team coach David Elson will field in Manhattan, Kan., on Sept. 4.

After concluding spring practice more organized and confident than a year ago, Elson and the players say they have an idea of strengths and areas of concern.

But this roster is one of the youngest in recent memory and depth at certain positions such as the offensive line could pose a problem. Because the team will have just eight seniors, a chunk of Western’s leadership will come from players like freshman quarterback Justin Haddix and sophomore running back Lerron Moore.

Yes, Elson will have leaders like juniors Charles Thompson, Brian Claybourn and Buster Ashley – players who have played significant roles for at least two years. But what he’s going to need are players who we have only seen a glimpse of, at best, so far this spring.

He’ll need players who now are listed second or third on the depth chart to step up for a headline-grabbing play when the leaves change colors.

If you visited practice any day this spring, a different player stood out almost every time. One day it was sophomore Earl Clayton. Another day, freshman G.J. Wooldridge stepped up. Saturday, freshmen Ricky Watkins and L.A. O’Neal showed they deserve a spot this fall.

Those kinds of performances are what Western will need if it wants to continue the recent string of four straight visits to the playoffs.

Two years ago when Western won the National Championship, it had backups that stood out and filled voids created by injuries.

Casey Rooney filled in for Jerome Reaves, Karl Maslowski subbed admirably for Erik Dandy and Antonio Thomas replaced Antonio Veals when needed. Those and others provided top-notch performances needed to get the extra first down, to make the third down tackle or to catch the interception.

Injuries will happen this season-they’re inevitable every season. But how the team responds and reacts to those injuries will ultimately decide the team’s level of success.

Looking at the sidelines Saturday during the Red-White scrimmage, Elson admitted he was concerned about his team’s depth, especially on the offensive line.

He said he wasn’t going to count on incoming freshmen to start but said they’ll probably need to perform significant roles on every unit.

“We’re really trying to emphasize to those redshirt freshmen not to be complacent that it’s just going to happen in the fall, just because you’re here,” he said. “The work has got to be put in now in spring practice and here coming up in the summer time.”

Keith Farner is a sports columnist at the Herald. He can be reached at [email protected]