By Austin Cannon
Injuries are a guaranteed byproduct of college football. The unlucky teams will lose several starters by the season’s end, sometimes in the same position group.
Drake is one such team, losing two starters on the offensive line — left guard Aaron Melton and right guard Al Hern — for the season in the first two games. What matters now is how the Bulldogs adjust.
For head coach Rick Fox and his staff, the next-man-up mentality begins at the first team meting of the season.
“When we’re in individual groups, we’re going to coach every guy as if he is an All-American,” Fox said. “There’s guys in this room who are going to step up and play that right now you don’t even think are going to step up and play this year.”
Melton went down on the offense’s first play against William Jewell. His right foot is in a cast. Hern injured his left knee in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss to North Dakota.
Rocco Stefanini stepped in for Melton against Jewell and started against North Dakota.
“When it comes down to it, everybody’s got to be ready to play, so the biggest difference is actually playing,” Stefanini said. “Actually getting that game feel.”
Besides additional reps during practice, having a starting spot is not much different.
“Everybody runs the same offense,” Stefanini said. “It’s just a matter of who’s in there.”
Mason Massei will be the new starter at right guard. Massei saw action in four games of his first two seasons while Stefanini was redshirted in 2013 and did not get into a game in 2014.
“They’ve just got to relax and trust each other, and they’ll be all right,” Fox said.
The injury news doesn’t stop there. Left tackle Aaron Johnson was hurt in the second quarter against UND and is day-to-day for Saturday’s game at South Dakota. If he’s unable to play, Ryan Lemke or Colby Dunn will likely step in.
Receiver Michael Hudson, Drake’s 2014 leader in receiving yards, is also questionable with a left leg injury.
Injuries might also force the Bulldogs to fill one of the most overlooked positions on the field: long snapper. Melton was the starter, and his backup, Colton Rodgers, was banged-up this week. Before practice Thursday, a collection of players was practicing long snaps in case Rodgers can’t play. One player practicing was defensive end Michael Vankat.
“If I need to, I’ll be in there,” he said.
Regardless of who plays where, Drake plays a South Dakota on Saturday. The Coyotes won their first game of the season last weekend, beating UC Davis, 27-17.
USD’s most decorated member is its coach. Joe Glenn has won three national titles, one at Division I-AA Montana and two at D-II Northern Colorado. At Wyoming, he led the Cowboys to a bowl-game victory over UCLA.
“They’re a very, very well-coached team,” Fox said.
Running back Trevor Bouma rushed for a career-high 186 yards against UC Davis, marking the second week in a row the Bulldogs will face a running back coming off a big game.
North Dakota’s John Santiago ran for 148 yards against Wyoming in Week 1, but Drake held him to only 24 yards. Playing UND last weekend could be beneficial; there could be some similarities between the two Dakotas.
“They run a lot of the same personnel groupings,” Vankat said. “I think we’ll be well-prepared for that.”
The offense, meanwhile, will try to recover after struggling against UND. After a first drive that drove all the way to the UND 18, Drake went three-and-out five straight times.
“We believe we’re a talented offense, and we’ll be successful,” Fox said.
Saturday is Drake’s last opportunity to work out any kinks before the Pioneer Football League season begins next week. With what will likely be a tightly contested conference, tie-breaking nonconference wins are at a premium.
“We’re going to have to come in and execute,” Fox said. “If we don’t do that, they will take advantage of us.”