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Redskins’ Rebound Relies Upon Reserves

By ZAC BOYER | | @ZacBoyer

This story appeared on page B1 of Thursday’s Free Lance-Star

ASHBURN – If Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss didn’t have adjacent lockers at Redskins Park, there’s a chance Hankerson would have worn a path into the burgundy carpet between the two by now.

Instead, all Hankerson has to do is lean over and ask his veteran teammate whatever he wants to know – how to read coverages, the precise way to run routes, other techniques.

All that information will be useful beginning Sunday as the Washington Redskins head to Toronto to face Buffalo. Moss’s broken left hand will keep him out of the game, giving an opportunity to Hankerson, fellow rookie Niles Paul and second-year receiver Terrence Austin.

Moss doesn’t like to give advice to his teammates unless they ask for it, preferring for them instead to try to learn the game on their own. But he, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth, all with at least a decade of experience in the league, have had to help their younger counterparts adjust over the past 10 days with so many injuries adding up.

“They’ve been in the league for 10-plus years,” Hankerson said. “They’re talking to us, telling us what kind of coverage, how to take care of your body, stuff like that. Looking at game film and just staying right.”

Relatively healthy on offense through the first five weeks of the season, things began to unravel against Philadelphia when left tackle Trent Williams sustained a high right ankle sprain, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger tore the ACL in his right knee and tight end Chris Cooley broke his left index finger.

They then nearly came fully untwined Sunday at Carolina when Moss broke his hand in the first quarter and running back Tim Hightower tore the ACL in his left knee early in the third.

If the Redskins are to hold on to their hopes of an NFC East title, or at least a playoff appearance, it will be on the reserves to do their part.

“I mean, you’ve got to be able to come into the game and be able to play whenever coach asks you to,” said Ryan Torain, who is likely to take over for Hightower as the team’s workhorse at running back. “In this system, coach [Mike Shanahan] wants you to play like a starter even if you’re third-string. Our coach gets us ready for every game like we are the starter, and we have to go in there and have the mentality that we can play at any level. We’ve definitely got to get out there and work hard.”

The three young receivers all had an opportunity to play in the 33-20 loss to the Panthers. Torain, in the NFL since 2008, has made sporadic appearances this season after leading the team in rushing in 2010. Roy Helu has been the Redskins’ third-down, change-of-pace back all season, and even tight end Logan Paulsen, playing in place of Cooley, has gotten involved in the passing game.

In determining the roster in early September, Shanahan preferred to take younger players over established veterans if the opportunity presented itself. The thought was that he and his assistants would have time to mold and develop them as their careers continued, and if they could work them into vital roles this season, it would be an added bonus.

Circumstances have changed, however, and it remains to be seen if Hankerson, a third-round pick who saw his first action against Carolina, and Paul, a fifth-round pick who had his first two receptions in that game, will contribute.

“I think they’ll be able to,” Stallworth said. “That’s why they’re here. The coaches saw obviously with Anthony [Armstrong] playing here last year, he did a good job, and is doing a good job this year as well. Niles stepped in as a rookie, which you don’t see really too many rookies do – step in and contribute right away.”

Paul, specifically, has worked on running better routes and getting off the ball faster. He’s also relied upon Moss to give him a few pointers here and there as to how he can improve.

“I’ve been learning a lot from him,” Paul said. “I’m still learning from him. All I can do is go out there and play the role I’m given, and if it grows, and something special happens out of it, it means I’m doing my job.”