When senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves dropped back to pass Monday night at practice, he found junior wide receiver Casey Rooney 35 yards down the field.
Reaves – with a brace supporting his left knee – is just over a month removed from a tear in his medial collateral ligament.
He went down in the first game of the season at Kansas State, and it was Rooney who stepped in as his replacement.
That kind of situation is nothing new for Western this season. The Toppers have suffered two MCL tears and two anterior cruciate ligament tears among four starters. But that’s not all. A handful of other starters have fallen victim to various sprains and strains.
“You’re going to get some people that get nicked, and you’re going to get some people that are injured,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said. “It’s just vitally important for the backups. You never know what position it’s going to be. . You know it’s going to happen, but you’ve just got to count on your team, that guys have enough commitment to the team, that they’ll prepare themselves and step in and play well.”
After each one of those injuries, a backup has been called into action. On their way to a 5-3 record and a tie for first in the conference, those Topper reserves have answered the call.
They are players you won’t find on schedule cards, media guides or game programs. But they have played an important role this season.
“They’re getting some valuable experience for when you need them down the road, and gets your starters some real confidence,” Harbaugh said.
Sophomore Antonio Thomas, senior Corey Shaw, sophomore Kris Mau, junior Karl Maslowski, sophomore Shawn McCrimon and Rooney have all responded when called on.
Shaw filled in on the defensive line and collected 16 tackles and a sack. Mau, also on the D-line, replaced senior Arthur Wilson, who has a bum ankle, to the tune of 21 tackles and three sacks. And McCrimon – who has 20 tackles and a sack – regularly subs for senior Jon Drummond while he battled cramps.
Against Youngstown State, when Western was looking for its first conference win, Thomas – replacing injured free safety Antonio Veals – came in and intercepted a pass in the end zone to seal the win.
“You gotta know that your time is coming,” Maslowski said. “You’ve gotta prepare like you’re a starter if you’re second string, because, like our coaches say, ‘You’re one play away.’ If you’re not thinking that way, you’re never going to produce when you go in there.”
It’s a toss-up whether Maslowski or Rooney could be the poster boy for this group.
Rooney leads the team in receiving yards after the preseason depth chart listed him as the fifth wideout.
He benefited from playing receiver a couple of seasons at Memphis, but said a lot of his success can be attributed to wide receivers coach T.J. Weist.
“He’s a pretty intense coach, and he keeps us focused throughout the week,” Rooney said. “During the game we just carry that mentality onto the field.”
Maslowski is getting another chance to start after junior linebacker Erik Dandy tore his ACL last Tuesday. Dandy is the second All-American he has backed up. After red-shirting his first season, Maslowski sat behind middle linebacker Melvin Wisham.
When he got his chance Saturday at Southwest Missouri State, he didn’t disappoint. In the 31-7 win, he had seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumbled and a fumble recovery.
“I think (last) weekend I proved I can play,” Maslowski said. “I can step in for Erik and he won’t have to feel worried about coming out, ever.”
When Western (5-3, 3-1 Gateway) takes on Indiana State (3-5, 1-2) as part of Homecoming this Saturday, the reserves-turned-starters could again play a major role in the outcome.
The defenders will have to slow down first-team All-Conference senior quarterback Julian Reese, who leads the Sycamores in rushing and passing. He ranks second in the Gateway with 212 yards per game.
“He demonstrated enough in real bad weather conditions (last year) to show us that he’s a quality, quality player,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be a difficult challenge for our defense.”
So if the starters are the oil in the Toppers’ engine, these role players could be the fuel injectors that take drive Western to its first Gateway championship.
“If you look at any championship team at any level,” Harbaugh said, “football, basketball, baseball, it really doesn’t matter when you go through a long season . there’s going to be games that are won, there are going to be games that slip away, because a player stepped into a role that he wasn’t prepared for either mentally or physically.”
Western hasn’t had that problem. And it may make all the difference.
The 73rd homecoming football game at Western will kick off at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Smith Stadium.