FOOTBALL: Changing the Game

J. Michael Moore

In the words of Kermit the Frog: “It’s not easy being green.”

Ask Western’s quarterbacks, and they’ll allude to some of the challenges.

Casey Rooney and Perez Smith have never taken a snap in a college game, but they find themselves leading the field in spring drills – green as the jerseys they wear in practice and with big shoes to fill.

The web-footed Muppet had it easy.

Rooney and Smith are not only dealing with a new coach and a tweaked offensive system. They also have one of the nation’s top defenses breathing down their neck every day at practice.

The pair have been some of the hardest working students on campus this spring, striving not only to compete and succeed, but also to replace last year’s captain and unspoken leader, Jason Michael.

Michael completed 60.6 percent of his passes last year for 1,661 yards and nine touchdowns. He also rushed for a team-high 14 scores.

“When Jason spoke, everybody listened to him,” associate head coach Willie Taggart said. “He did all the right things on and off the field. One thing you’re not going to get out of most guys is Jason’s leadership.”

Rooney, a junior, transferred from Memphis two seasons ago. He was third on the quarterback depth chart last year, but he made contributions at wide receiver, leading the team with 29 receptions for 603 yards and two touchdowns.

One of those 29 was a key reception against Georgia Southern in the Division I-AA playoffs that set up a game-winning score, sending the Hilltoppers to the national title game against McNeese State.

It’s been a while since Rooney’s lined up under center.

“You can’t live up to expectations like that,” he said, referring to Michael’s heart-filled and vocal leadership.

Smith, a junior transfer from New Mexico Military Junior College, agrees, saying the pressure comes more from expectations after winning a national championship, not from trying to live up to an individual.

“We’re just trying to get better day by day,” Smith said.

The pair also said they are taking it day by day in the offense’s evolution, a process that head coach David Elson says will end in a more balanced attack, complete with one-back and shotgun sets.

There’s also the matter of getting better at their positions.

Taggart likes the athleticism of both of his quarterbacks, saying the shotgun will play off both their abilities, allowing them to do more in the backfield and in throwing the football.

He said they have the experience and have been around enough to contribute.

Smith, listed at 5-foot-8, says he welcomes the shotgun set. It’s easier to find passing lanes.

He also said athleticism could play a different role when the quarterback is not locked under center.

Rooney, a taller quarterback, said he likes the shotgun as well and expects applause and a few smiles when they showcase a few plays to begin the season.

But despite their physical differences, the pair does not see themselves as competitors.

“We’re both knew and trying to learn a new system,” Rooney said.

They know the Hilltoppers’ defense won’t do them any favors.

The defense dominated the first scrimmage of the spring practice schedule Saturday, intercepting Rooney twice.

Rooney finished 12-of-21 for 94 yards through the air. Smith was 7-of-12 for 32 yards.

“We knew they’d be tough,” Rooney said, noting that practicing against such a good defense will play out as an advantage.

“Overall, we did fairly well for it to be our first scrimmage,” Smith said.

Nine different Toppers finished with at least one reception Saturday, led by junior Shannon Hayes, who finished with four catches for 30 yards.

Freshman Josh Johnson led the defense with 12 tackles, while Reggie Dent led all rushers with 55 yards on 22 carries.

The Hilltoppers have another full scrimmage scheduled for Saturday.

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]