Playing with backups
By Andrew Lovell
|Justin Sottilare was recently where Lee Brekke is
now -- thrust into the starting lineup as quarterback for a
national title contender.
Photo by Peggy Erwin, D3sports.com
The excitement of the season-opening kickoff had barely worn off when head coach Mike Drass, offensive coordinator Chip Knapp and the rest of the Wesley football team were dealt the first of what would prove to be many devastating blows in an emotionally trying season.
On the Wolverines' second play from scrimmage in the opener against Christopher Newport, senior quarterback Shane McSweeny went down with an injury.
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McSweeny stayed in for one more play, then had to take himself out of the game. Something was seriously wrong.
The injury was later diagnosed as a torn ACL, sidelining McSweeny, the Wolverines' standout dual-threat quarterback, for the season.
"I think there might have been one second there where we all took a big breath, gasped and said, 'What are we going to do?' Drass said. "I remember looking over at the trainer and he just kind of shook his head no at me."
In stepped junior quarterback Justin Sottilare. Twelve wins, 37 touchdowns and 3,128 passing yards later, and the rest as they say, is history. Or at least the Wolverines are hoping to make history.
Wesley has rallied behind Sottilare, more of a traditional pocket passer than McSweeny, and a slew of other backups that have filled in for various injuries to put together a 12-0 season thus far.
The Wolverines' reward? A date in the semifinals with defending national champion UW-Whitewater, the same team that trounced Wesley by a combined 102-13 margin in back-to-back semifinal matchups in 2005 and 2006.
"Right now Whitewater is the elite team, they're defending national champions," Drass said. "Having played them in 2005 and 2006, they were just a better team than us at that time. ... You don't see a chink in their armor at all when you watch film and you try to break them down."
While no one will argue with Drass' assessment of Whitewater, most would agree it's impressive – if not unlikely – that the Wolverines are one of the final four teams standing.
McSweeny's torn ACL may have been the most prominent injury, but it wasn't the only one Wesley dealt with this season.
Senior cornerback and three-year starter Dakevis Howard suffered a broken foot in the Wolverines' second game, sidelining him for the majority of the season.
Senior wide receiver Gene Knight, who caught 45 passes for 696 yards in 2009 as the perfect Robin to Ellis Krout's Batman, was limited to just six games and 15 catches this season because of injury.
Sophomore Miles Little, Wesley's special teams player of the year last season, has seen action in only five games this season, also because of injury.
Senior defensive end Josh Nevid played in only two games after tearing his ACL. Nevid only made it through three games in 2009 before going down with an injury.
And the most peculiar – and possibly dangerous – situation arose with senior tight end Sean McAndrew. An all-conference selection in 2009, McAndrew was misdiagnosed with a sports hernia over the summer. It was only during surgery for the sports hernia that doctors realized the mistake.
McAndrew made it to the third game of the season and was playing a reasonably high level considering he was losing weight at an unusual rate.
After another round of examinations, a specialist finally recognized the source of McAndrew's distress – gallstones. McAndrew went in again for surgery, this time to have seven incisions made in his stomach lining to remove the gallstones.
"It's been one of those roller coaster rides," Drass said. "But every time we've had an injury, someone's stepped up and done a great job."
No where has that been more evident than at quarterback, where Sottilare picked up right where McSweeny left off.
While McSweeny, a converted safety, is more of a threat to run, Sottilare is content to sit in the pocket and pick defenses apart through the intermediate passing game.
Sottilare has worked closely with Knapp this season to constantly update and analyze the Wolverines' offensive schemes. Knapp showed flexibility in re-tooling the passing attack to fit Sottilare's skill set.
"I just remember the first game, we had it set up for Shane, so a lot of quarterback runs," Knapp said. "About half of my play sheet was Shane running the ball, then by the third play of the game Justin came in and I had to fold [the sheet] in half and take that half of the offense out. ... [Justin's] real calm, but he's real decisive. He's been able to also talk about things that work and we've been able to work together. If he sees something out there that he wants to do, he has the confidence to [do it]."
"Coach Knapp does a great job of taking our offense and letting it evolve into the talent that we have," Drass said. "Justin's more of a drop-back passer, has a great release and great decision-making skills. We've been able to take the offense and put it more toward the skills that he has."
The change in quarterback has hardly slowed down the dynamic Krout, who has followed up a 56-catch, 884-yard, 20-touchdown performance in 2009 with a 58-catch, 1,041-yard, 18-touchdown encore in 2010.
Senior Leonard Stevenson (40 receptions, 664 yards, eight touchdowns) has stepped up in Knight's absence, giving Sottilare a pair of reliable targets in the passing game.
And when Sottilare has had to check down or hand off, it's usually been to sophomore running back Brandon Wright. Wright, a first-year starter, has piled up 1,327 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns in a breakthrough season.
To his credit, McSweeny has remained an integral part not only of Wesley's offense, but the Wolverines' overall team morale.
"You've got to give Shane McSweeny some unbelievable credit here," Drass said. "It's real hard ... when players get hurt and have season-ending injuries, they'll be around on gameday and they'll stop by, but it's hard for them to be around the team because they can't be on the field. And Shane has been out there at practice and stayed with the team. He's a captain, so he's done all the things you'd expect a captain to do, but he's not playing."
McSweeny, who piled up 2,917 passing yards, 718 rushing yards and 44 total touchdowns a year ago, has worked closely with Sottilare over the course of the season, sharing any tips and tidbits he's picked up from previous encounters with opponents.
"Every time we get in the red zone he tells me to put the ball up to Krout one-on-one, but that's like common sense," Sottilare said, drawing a laugh from Drass and Knapp. "... On the sidelines he'll talk to me, he'll tell me what coverage they're in, he'll give me ideas from what he did when he played last year. He's helped a lot. He's a great sport and a good friend. It's just good to have him there."
The Wolverines' stout defense, which leads the nation in total defense at 192.8 yards allowed per game, has no shortage of dynamic playmakers.
Junior defensive end Chris Mayes (58 tackles, 17 sacks), senior safety Aaron Benson (52 tackles, two interceptions), junior cornerback Marcus Wilson (seven interceptions) and senior linebacker Jeff Morgan (75 tackles, 7.5 sacks) are among the standouts.
But defense was never a concern for a team that traditionally fields a strong unit on that side of the ball. And certainly, by this point, Sottilare has relieved any concerns about his ability to step in as a productive starter.
In fact, the only real question might be, with McSweeny getting a medical redshirt for this year and Sottilare coming back for his true senior season, who gets the starting nod in 2011?
"We'll have the two best quarterbacks in the country," Drass said.
It's certainly a nice dilemma to have. But first things first – Whitewater awaits.