Western Kentucky redshirt junior running back Anthony "Ace" Wales is out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury, coach Jeff Brohm confirmed Monday.
Just three days from the season opener at Vanderbilt, the Hilltoppers continue to prepare without their speedy counterpart to senior starting running back Leon Allen.
Brohm said Wales' return to action is "a little bit down the road."
"There are some guys that we're missing, but I like the guys we have," Brohm said. "They've worked hard. At any point throughout the season, someone's going to have to step up, and there will be a few this first game that will have to step up."
Allen is WKU's powerful lead back, but Wales has been an explosive complement throughout his career.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Louisville native rushed for 536 yards and five touchdowns last year and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. He also caught 15 passes for 127 yards.
Without him, the pressure grows even stronger on Allen, who rushed for 1,542 yards and 13 scores in 2014.
"We've just got to keep developing that position, but 33, Leon Allen, he's got to be ready to carry the load," offensive coordinator Tyson Helton said last week.
WKU's other main running backs include redshirt freshman D'Andre Ferby, graduate transfer senior Anthony Davis and true freshman Marquez Trigg.
"We have a few nicks, so young guys have to step up now," Allen said after the team's last scrimmage. "The young guys showed they can play."
Davis now seems like a savvy addition for the Tops. The 5-9, 205-pound grad transfer from Indiana provided senior leadership in fall camp but could player a larger role after the latest development.
Ferby is probably the most likely to pick up the slack for Wales, although at 6-1 and 240 pounds, he's a very different type of back.
"I like D'Andre Ferby," Brohm said. "I think he's had a very good fall camp. He's a guy that when he came in, he actually displayed a stronger work ethic than I thought he'd have. He's a hungry football player. He wants to be a very good player.
"... He's performed well. I think he's ready to go. He's another big, strong back that I think has a bright future. This is his first game. He might be a little nervous going in there, but I like what I've seen from him. He has to be ready to go now that Ace has been hurt a little bit."
Ferby said last week that running backs coach Bryan Ellis has told his unit to be ready for obstacles like this.
"He teaches us to just be prepared," Ferby said. "When one goes down, somebody else has got to step up. Right now we've got Ace down. We don't know how long he's going to be out, so right now I've got to be more focused and be ready to play in game one."
Thursday could be a special night for Ferby at Vanderbilt.
The Nashville native starred at the city's Ensworth High School and will have a large contingent on hand.
"I've got a lot of family members and friends who are going to be out there watching me play," Ferby said. "It's going to be nice to get back out there in my city."
Brohm also said Monday that redshirt junior offensive lineman Joe Manley (foot), senior linebacker Dejon Brown (knee) and redshirt senior receiver Jared Dangerfield (undisclosed) are questionable for Thursday's opener.
Manley was in a walking boot at practice last week. Brohm said he's "unsure" of Manley's status for the upcoming week and reiterated that redshirt junior Matt Nord is out for an extended period of time with a broken foot.
Redshirt freshman Dennis Edwards is expected to fill in at right guard for Manley if needed.
Brown, the team's second-leading tackler, has been out with issues with the knee he had scoped in the spring but is trying to return to practice this week, Brohm said. Redshirt senior Nick Newton has been filling that void.
"We'll see how much he can play this week," Brohm said of Brown.
Dangerfield, WKU's top receiver a year ago, hasn't practiced in more than two weeks with an undisclosed injury. Brohm said he doesn't know when Dangerfield will practice again or if he'll be able to play at Vanderbilt.
"Some (of the injuries) may extend beyond that, but we're trying to get them ready for this game," Brohm said.
WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty said he's confident that Dangerfield will play Thursday and that the team's reserves will be ready to fill any gaps.
"We've got a lot of depth on offense, I think," Doughty said. "Those guys that have replaced those guys are way more than capable. Nacarius Fant is Mr. Kentucky for a reason. He's going to try to fill a spot if Jared can't go, but I'm pretty confident he will be there.
"Dennis is going to get the first action he'll see, but he's so talented, that guy. We'll see what he does. Ferby is another guy that will have the first in the spotlight - at night when the lights come out. I'll like to see how he reacts, but I like our team, I really do.
"I'll put our team against anyone in the nation."