Taggart talks freshmen

28 10 2010

When Willie Taggart put together his first full recruiting class at Western Kentucky this past winter, he knew it was a good one.
But he had no idea that it produce so much productivity this fast.

During last Saturday’s game at Louisiana-Lafayette, Taggart played 10 true freshmen. Through seven games this season, a total of 13 true freshmen have seen game action.

And they’re not just out there standing in place either.

True freshmen cornerbacks Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright have started four straight games, true freshman linebacker Xavius Boyd has four starts this season, true freshman running back Antonio Andrews scored a pair of touchdowns and has elevated himself into the role of primary backup for junior Bobby Rainey. And the latest of Taggart’s most recent recruiting class to break out last week, freshman tight end Demetrius Coley – who scored his first career touchdown on a 43-yard play from Kawaun Jakes.

Maybe the biggest impact thus far has come from freshman receiver Willie McNeal. McNeal wasn’t recruited by Taggart, but is technically a true freshman due to his 2009 grayshirt status – so far this season, he’s second on the team with 281 receiving yards and 19th in the country with 151 all purpose yards per game.

Through seven games this season, Taggart’s kids have definitely been all right.

“For those guys it’s about attitude, you watch them in practice it’s about having fun and competing,” he said. “They compete every day in football practice. …Those guys haven’t been around here to experience what everyone else has (in terms of losing), so their mentality is a little different than those that have been around.”

Taggart said from the day of his hiring that one of his goals would be to hit the recruiting trail and find players that could “take other players jobs.” And even in year one, he’s found players that proven they can do just that.

“You want freshman to come in and be competitive and earn a job, but you also want veterans to keep their jobs,” said Taggart, who has a no-interview policy for each of his true freshmen players. “Ultimately that brings about a better football team. I don’t think we expected all these guys to play like they are, but it’s a good thing.

“And they’re improving every week which is exciting for a head coach because you know you’ll have these guys around for a while.”

After the WKU pass defense was shredded for 366 yards in a home loss to Indiana earlier this season, Taggart pulled the trigger with Robinson and Wright – allowing them to make their first career starts at corner the following week at South Florida.

Since then, WKU has allowed just 157.3 yards per game through the air.

The same impact can be said for Andrews. The former Mr. Kentucky football joined WKU midway through fall camp, but didn’t take long to make an impact. The do-it-all Andrews had a 37-yard halfback pass completion against Louisiana-Monroe and broke through with touchdown runs of four and 30 yards last week at Louisiana-Lafayette.

Taggart says the biggest thing those players have shown in practice and during games is an ultimate competitive streak – something that he thinks is starting to wear off on the rest of his roster, which features only nine currently active seniors.

“I always want to know how competitive a kid is, if he’s competitive, he’ll find a way to make it work,” Taggart said. “There are three things we evaluate kids on when we recruit them: Academics, football and character. And character says a lot about a kid.

“And the film doesn’t lie, you watch them and you can see if they can play. We try to find the best guys we possibly can because we feel like we can get them here to WKU.”

The majority of those true freshmen are already wise beyond their years, as most have been on the field since WKU kicked the season off at Nebraska on Sept. 4.

And every time the Hilltoppers get a play from one of their young performers, it sends a jolt throughout the entire roster.
Something he hopes will continue not just this season, but for several to come.

“All of them make plays and show enthusiasm when they do it,” he said. “And when a young guy does it, it lifts the entire team. When Demetrius Coley scored last week, the whole sideline went nuts. That was impressive.
“Whenever you can get a young guy to step up it brings that much more excitement.”

Breaking the Mean Green curse

Taggart admitted Thursday that he has indeed watched film from last season’s 68-49 track meet between North Texas and WKU in Denton, Texas – a game that ultimately resulted in a Mean Green victory.

The first-year WKU coach says that while he’s not going to put too much stock in that game – or wacky 2007 and 2008 contests – he did remind his players that through three games against UNT over the past three seasons, the Hilltoppers are a big, fat, 0-3.

“I was looking for the basketball goals to see who was shooting 3-pointers (while watching the 2009 game),” Taggart said. “I heard all about (the 2007 and 2008 games), I heard about it then, heard about it over the years and maybe you might think they’ve got some kind of a curse on us with the way those ballgames have gone.

“But we’ve got to go out and learn from those mistakes. We can learn from the past and correct things. … I told our players something I hadn’t told them all year. I let out one of my secrets. When I sit in my office I’ve got this little bird that sits on my shoulder and talks to me, I call him the Sun Belt bird. He knows what everyone else is saying in the Sun Belt and what’s going on, and there’s some buzz going on about WKU football after last week. The bird talks about what they’re saying in North Texas, in Lafayette, how it was a fluke last week because they had some guys injured and what not. At North Texas, the bird is saying ‘until they beat us, they haven’t done anything.’ … Until we go out and beat North Texas, we haven’t done anything. If WKU loses on the last play of the game again at North Texas, people will see how far they’ve come. We have to make them believe. But we believe, and that’s all that matters.”

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