It was on the bus ride back from Missoula, where Eastern Washington had just been stung by a 17-14 Big Sky Conference football loss to Montana, that Patrick Mealey made the transition from a third-string heavyweight tight end to an emergency flyweight center.
And last Saturday, less than six days after making the change, the Central Valley graduate and University of Idaho transfer – all 245 pounds of him – was rushed into action at his new position after senior center Chris Powers tore the posterior cruciate ligament in this right knee midway through the second quarter of the Eagles’ 36-21 home-opening loss to Montana State.
Mealey was wearing his regular No. 86 to start the game, but made a quick change of jerseys on the sidelines after Powers went down, and entered the game wearing No. 74, so he could legally try to deal with MSU’s 305-pound nose tackle Christian Keli’i.
“Powers is an absolute warrior, so I really didn’t figure I’d be playing,” said the 6-foot-2 Mealey, who started his college football career as a walk-on at Idaho in 2008 and played sparingly as a redshirt freshman tight end in 2009 before transferring to Eastern. “Unfortunately, we lost a great player to another injury, but, fortunately, the coaches had prepared me all week to be in that situation.”
Mealey played the last 21/2 quarters at center, calling out blocking assignments – which he said was the hardest part of making such a quick transition, snapping the ball and doing what he could to use his speed to offset his lack of size.
“It’s funny,” said Mealey, who will make his first college start at center Saturday, when the Eagles (0-4 overall, 0-2 Big Sky) take on first-place Weber State (2-2, 2-0) at 12:35 p.m. at Roos Field, “but when I got here this summer, the coaches we’re all telling me I needed to slim down a little, so I got my weight down to about 240.
“Our O-line coach (Aaron Best) was making fun of me, saying, ‘Mealey, you’re a fat tight end.’ Now he’s like, ‘You’re just a teeny offensive lineman,’ so it’s been kind of reversal of roles. And now I get to eat all the doughnuts I want.”
Best, who is also the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, first got the idea of moving Mealey to center after two more of his starting linemen – left guard Steve Forgette (fractured fibula) and right guard Jase Butorac (knee sprain), who had both had some grooming as backup centers – were injured in the Montana game.
“He got moved about an hour out of Missoula,” said Best, who first broached the possible position change with quarterbacks coach Zak Hill. “I told Coach Hill, ‘You may think I’m crazy, but I might see what Pat Mealey can do at center.’
“The biggest reason I thought about him was that he’s a scrapper. And you’ve always got a chance with a guy who’s a scrapper.”
The following Monday, Best put Mealey on a crash learning course that included the offensive line calls and the direct center snap out of the shotgun formation Eastern employs extensively out of its no-huddle offense.
“It was a lot to ask, but he didn’t have his first bad snap out of the gun until Thursday, which is amazing for anyone,” Best added.
During the Montana State game, Mealey made a couple of mistakes with his calls, but still managed to grade out at a respectable 84, which ranked second among those who played on the Eagles’ patchwork interior line.
“There were some things where my lack of size helped me,” Mealey said. “When we were running outside zone, for example, I could reach whoever I need to get to because of my speed. But then sometimes, when I was getting shaded, it hurt me.
“Any time you’re trying to block someone 60 pounds heavier than you, it’s a challenge. I made a couple of rookie mistakes on things I hadn’t really had a lot of practiced at, but they’re coaching me up really well, and I feel like I’m getting better every day.”
Best said Mealey will make most of the blocking calls again this week, mainly because he will be flanked on one side by sophomore Brandon Murphy, a converted defensive lineman, and on the other by walk-on sophomore and non-letterwinner Drew Reynolds.
Powers, a co-captain and returning All-Big Sky performer from last year’s NCAA Division I championship team, is expected to miss two more games.
Once he returns, Mealey doesn’t know if he will move back to tight end or stay a center.
“We haven’t discussed that at all,” he said. “We’re putting all our focus this week on Weber State, and I’m going to be ready to do whatever they ask me to do as a center.
“And if Chris Powers comes back 100 percent healthy next week and then need me to play tight end, I’ll be more than happy to do that, too.”
Best is understandably looking forward to Powers’ return, but he’s not losing any sleep over the reality of having to go with the undersized Mealey as his starter until then.
“He did some things against Montana State in certain situations that probably two-thirds of our bunch couldn’t do, just because he’s so fast,” Best said of his “newbie” center. “So, I’m looking forward to seeing how the next couple of weeks unfold.
“Obviously, when Chris Powers is healthy again, he’ll man the spot. But until then, rest assured that Pat Mealey will come to the rescue.”