WKU's coaches have been saying since the Alabama game that more downfield passing was needed to shake up the offense and keep defenses honest.
During the first three games, nearly have pass had been short or intermediate. Even the touchdown throws that had turned into long gains, such as junior wide receiver Jake Gaebler's 32-yard touchdown at Indiana, were off short passes.
In Saturday's 50-9 win over Murray State, the Toppers showed that they had the long ball in their arsenal on the first play of the game. Redshirt freshman Derrius Brooks hauled in a 38-yard pass from senior quarterback David Wolke.
Heading into week five, the deep passing game has taken a slight hit. Brooks will be out 6-8 weeks after fracturing his right foot. Worse yet, Gaebler may not be healthy enough to return after missing the last two games with a back injury.
"I think he's 80 percent right now," offensive coordinator Kevin Wright said. "He'll probably play a limited role. We'll limit, even if he can go, it'll be limited. We'll limit his reps, situationally, what he can do if he's able to go. Right now, they're telling me it's 80 percent, whatever that means. The way we're approaching it is he's gonna play. We're just gonna limit his reps and what he has to do. He'll be a big boost getting him back after losing Derrius. You kinda hate to lose both those guys but guys have gotta step up."
As with any injury, the opportunity arises for others to climb into that deserted position. With Gaebler on the shelf and now Brooks out, that's come from Wenquell Graves.
A sophomore, Graves saw limited action in the first two games, but at Alabama, he had four catches for 29 yards and against Murray State, he made five catches for 32 yards.
"All the way through camp, he's been a very steady guy," Wright said. "He's been a guy, that he catches, he doesn't drop balls, he doesn't make a lot of mental mistakes. He's a very steady guy. He's a true sophomore out there playing, 19 year old kid. We're very young on offense at a lot of different positions and that's one of them, with him and Derrius and Coop. All of those guys have been in college for two years now. People tend to forget that. Wenquel's done a nice job and he's not a blazer, but he's got deceptive speed and he's quick and he can make people miss. He's gotta be the guy that steps up with Derrius and Gabe out."
Graves also hasn't dropped a pass the Toppers have thrown to him.
"In practice, when we do inside routes, I'm usually the one that goes down the field, through the middle on the deep routes," Graves said. "I'm hopin' to get one of those in a game. I haven't gotten what I expected, but I'm hoping to get one of those pretty soon, hopefully the next game. When Jake went out, I knew I had to step up and Derrius had to step up too. When Derrius went down, we really grouped up, got together and said we've gotta do something. Some people have kinda had to move up and make changes."
Graves and the rest of the offense will have its original starting quarterback return this week in KJ Black, though senior David Wolke has admirably filled in, in his place.
Black went down with a dislocated, left, non-throwing shoulder at EKU and hasn't played since.
"At times, it felt like the first day of camp, trying to get back up to speed and getting reps with the first team," Black said. "I feel like it went pretty well. No, as far as back getting back into shape, I haven't done those many reps in a couple of weeks. I think that's gonna be my biggest challenge, is getting back into shape. I' m ready to go, I'm ready to take shots, I'm ready to move around and run like I used to."
The offense has also taken some hits to its offensive line.
Senior left guard Cody Hughes sat out today's practice with an injured right knee. Sophomore right tackle Preston King also sat out with a deep left thigh bruise.
Both are expected to be back by Saturday. Hughes is using this week more as a rest and recovery week.
In their place, redshirt freshman Wes Jeffries has stepped in and impressed offensive line coach Walter Wells. Jeffries is slated behind Hughes but will get the majority of the reps there this week.
"His biggest problem was he's been soft," Wells said. "He got better in the spring, he got better in fall camp. I had him at left tackle because he's the second best athlete we've got on the team, as far as offensive line goes. He's gonna back up Greg. He just kept improving and kept battling and kept showing he could block some of our defensive guys, who are really good players in one on one drills. Just looking at some of the changes that we needed to make and he's gonna press for some playing time and he'll play Saturday. He'll play when it counts some on Saturday. He's behind Cody right now, but he could easily move over to right guard if we need him to and obviously, he could go back to tackle."
Sophomore offensive lineman Derrick Elder also returned to practice today from a hamstring injury and should see time Saturday.
Other injuries facing the Toppers this week include senior safety Brad Cloud, who sprained his MCL and junior quarterback Brandon Smith, who injured his right knee and may not be available at UK.
Senior linebacker Alonzo Higgins sat out today with a swollen big toe and junior cornerback Rashad Etheridge also sat out with an unspecified injury. Both will be back in practice this week.
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