Ball State wide receiver Aaron Hepp escapes a tackle against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 17 at Scheumann Stadium. Hepp recorded his first three catches of the season for 54 yards in a 24-21 loss at Central Michigan last week. Grace Hollars // DN
Fifth-year senior proves he can step up for Ball State
Ball State wide receiver Aaron Hepp didn't have a catch in 2015. Coming into last weekend's game against Central Michigan, the fifth-year senior didn't have one this year either.
But with the Cardinals facing a crucial 3rd-and-12 while trailing 24-21, quarterback Riley Neal looked to Hepp across the middle for a gain of 16. His second catch went for 18 yards to start the team's next drive. Three plays later, it was Hepp for 20 more.
He finished the game with three catches and 54 receiving yards — a career high. More importantly, Hepp showed he's capable of stepping up when needed for a thin Ball State receiver group.
Aaron Hepp — Career stats
Receptions — 11
Receiving yards — 140
Touchdowns — 1
Long reception — 20 yards
Punt return average — 5.5
"Throughout the whole season, I've kind of prepared like I'm the starter," Hepp said. "And prepare like I'm going to get 70 reps in the game. ... You've got to understand being through five years of college football, you don't know who's going to play every time, so you've gotta come ready to go every day."
At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Hepp is an undersized guy who doesn't get a lot of run at wide receiver.
Two of Ball State's starting receivers, however, didn't play against the Chippewas. Junior Jordan Hogue didn't make the trip due to injury, and Corey Lacanaria's absence was a coach's decision.
Enter Hepp, who was one of only three Ball State receivers — along with KeVonn Mabon and Damon Hazelton Jr. — to record a catch at Central Michigan.
"It felt good," Hepp said. "But ultimately, we still lost the game. I would take having zero yards every single game and winning, versus having 300 yards in a game and losing."
Head coach Mike Neu wasn't surprised by Hepp's performance given his work ethic on the practice field.
"[Hepp] hadn't had a ton of time offensively, but he deserved the opportunity to play," Neu said. "He's very assignment-sound, very detailed in his preparation. Those guys made the plays when they had an opportunity, and that's what you want to see."
Hepp also plays a big role for the Cardinals as the team's punt returner. He has nine returns this season for 63 yards and a long of 16.
Ball State wide receiver coach Alex Bailey said Hepp's maturity and experience are what make him a leader within the group.
"We like to call it around here a savvy vet," Bailey said. "But you know what you're gonna get as a coach. He's always been consistent, and he's always been focused and kind of ready for the moment."
It's unclear what Hepp's role in the passing game might be for the remainder of the Cardinals' season. As the starting receivers get back and healthy, his playing time may shrink back to just returning punts.
Whatever happens, Hepp will be ready when his number is called — and the team can draw on the tape against Central Michigan to prove it.
"I guess since I've been here, I've always had the mentality that I'm the best player here," he said. "Logically, I understand that there have been dozens and dozens of receivers here that are better players than I am. But every football player should have the mentality that they're the best."