When Leon Allen suffered a season-ending knee injury the second game of the football season, Western Kentucky fans wondered how the Hilltoppers were going to produce a running game that would balance the passing proficiency of All-America quarterback candidate Brandon Doughty.
Initially, they had good reason to be concerned.
After all, Allen rushed for more than 1,500 yards and caught 51 passes out of the backfield last season when WKU went 8-5 and won its first FBS bowl game in Jeff Brohm's debut as Hilltoppers head coach.
Enter Anthony "Ace" Wales, a mercurial 5-foot-10, 195-pound redshirt junior out of Louisville's Central High School, who was beginning to get healthy from his own leg injury around the same time Allen's season was being short-circuited.
In the time since, the speedy Wales has delivered in a huge way.
"Ace works hard, he's a good kid," Brohm said. "You can coach him hard, you can demand a lot from him and he'll work at it.
"He's gotten better at running north and south when he gets into open space, and we try to spread the field for him quite a bit. Now, he can use his speed, break away, make guys miss better in open space, and he's gotten better at taking care of the ball."
Last Saturday, Wales was at his north-south best, carrying 17 times for 135 yards in Western Kentucky's 35-19 homecoming victory over Conference USA foe Florida Atlantic, which lifted the Hilltoppers to 8-2 overall and 6-0 in league play — good enough for WKU to receive votes in both the Associated Press and coaches' polls.
"I'm just doing what I can do to help our team win football games," Wales said. "We've got a great offensive line, I'm following their lead and finding some open space. I'm just running hard every time I touch the ball, trying to get us in the end zone."
For the season, Wales' numbers are eye-popping. In seven games and only 88 carries, he has rushed for a team-best 687 yards — an average of 7.8 per attempt — and has scored six touchdowns. In addition, he has made 12 receptions for 90 yards and two TDs.
Wales' production and that of bruising 6-1, 240-pound D'Andre Ferby, a true freshman (501 yards, five TDs), have helped offset the loss of Allen, considered one of the best combo backs in the nation.
"It's like thunder and lighting with Ferby and me," Wales said. "When we're getting the job done, it makes our offense better, brings more balance to it."
Brohm wholeheartedly agrees.
"We need both of these guys to bounce off of each other and be able to sub in and out," Brohm said of Wales and Ferby. "I really like the way they've run — they have gotten better, and you have to when you lose a guy like Leon Allen."
In 11 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2014, Wales rushed for 546 yards — a team-high 6.3 per carry — and scored five touchdowns in a role behind Allen. In Western Kentucky's Bahamas Bowl victory over Central Michigan, Wales paced the Hilltoppers with 95 yards on 14 carries.
At Central, Wales became Kentucky's third-leading high school rusher of all time with 8,213 yards, while amassing 114 touchdowns. He led the Yellowjackets to consecutive Class 3A state titles in 2010 and 2011.
Idle this week, Wales and Western return to action Nov. 21 at Florida International.