WKU football – post-spring thoughts

17 04 2011

So the spring practice session is over, Kawaun Jakes wins the Spring Game MVP and seems to have a lock on the starter slot heading into the summer.

Those are a few facts, but here are some of my ponderings from what I saw over the past four or so weeks at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

– The defense should be the backbone

New defensive coordinator Lance Guidry wasn’t putting on a front with that YouTube video business – that guy pretty much spits fire, all day long. He’s that intense.

And WKU’s other new defensive hire, DBs coach Alonzo Hampton, is about as intense as Guidry is when it comes to coaching. Couple that with the already fiery Eric Mathies and you’ve got one really energetic coaching staff.

What’s that mean, exactly?

Well, defenses generally take on the personality of their coaches – and if that’s in any way true this season, it should be an interesting group to watch.

Personality aside, the defense as a whole does have some serious young talent that could take a big step into becoming one of the top overall units in the Sun Belt – next season, not in 2012 or 2013. But next season.

Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright were two of the better starting corners in the league as true freshmen, in my opinion, last season. They’ll both be back, as will hard-hitting safety Kiante Young. Florida transfer Jon Dowling won’t play this season, but Kareem Peterson will – and so will Ryan Beard.

On top of that, WKU brings in some top-notch speed and athleticism in the defensive backfield this fall with Eric Robinson-Berry and Champ Lewis – both players that could see the field in some capacity.

The defensive line really, really needs a breakout season – and if it’s ever going to happen, now might be the time.

Jamarcus Allen was unblockable this spring inside and finally seems to be playing to the potential he had when he originally signed with South Florida before opting for WKU out of high school. Quanterus Smith is still the most talented defensive lineman WKU has, and if his motor is going, he’s tough to stop. Jared Clendenin has been a starter since his freshman season, but really needs to burst out this year and not just hold his ground – he needs to be a playmaker.

In the past, those three and a few others were about all the defensive line had to offer. But with the development of some players over the past three recruiting classes, WKU has a chance to legitimately run about eight deep on its defensive line this fall and not see too much of a drop off.

That’s huge if you think about it. Just three years ago this group could barely get three competitive guys on the field at the same time – and now I’m talking about rolling eight over each Saturday? Big step forward – but they’ve got to show it come game time.

The linebacking corps was the biggest question mark entering spring ball this year, and it still will be once fall rolls around.

But – that said, Guidry and company found some players this spring.

Tye Golden looks like a different person on the field now in the middle. He started his career as an outside backer, and had the athletic ability to get himself on the field from day one – but never seemed to be able to keep himself out there long enough to make anything happen. He was the most consistent backer this spring and should be the unquestioned starter heading into the fall.

At outside backer, a couple of walk-ons might have actually had the best camp out of anyone. Tyler Julian and newcomer C.J. Odom – a former Miami commit – were the best outside backers in the spring game, and were pretty much all over the field all spring long as well. Both players should see time in the fall.

But don’t forget about sophomores Xavius and Ba’ree Boyd. Neither seemed outstanding this spring, but both played heavily last fall as true freshmen – and neither really disappointed much when they were called upon. Plus, they’re both still growing – those guys will figure into things for sure in the fall, and both have the ability to be serious playmakers in that 4-3 scheme.

WKU also adds some talent at outside backer with its incoming class, most notably Fort Lauderdale prospect Daerius Washington – he was the highest rated player Taggart signed this fall (according to Rivals) and he’ll be a name to watch.

– Jakes exits spring with a firm grasp on the starting QB spot

Told you so.

In all seriousness though, I said before spring ball started that Brandon Doughty – as talented as he is – would have a really difficult time unseating Kawaun Jakes in the spring, and I believe the same will be said once fall camp wraps in August.

Doughty has all the natural ability to succeed in this offense, and I still think he’s a better overall passer than Jakes – but he’s light years behind him right now as far as feel for the offense in general goes. He’ll do some things at WKU before all is said and done, but I think Jakes will be the starter again next fall.

This was a big spring for Jakes, and just not for on-field development either. Taggart harped every single day about wanting him to become more of a leader, and every day it seemed that he genuinely focused on doing just that.

And perhaps more importantly, his teammates seemed to see that. It seems like the offense trusts Jakes – which is really, really big. I in no way got that sense during Jakes’ redshirt frosh year, and really didn’t as much last year either. But it really does seem like it’s his huddle out there – even if Bobby Rainey is still the meal ticket standing behind him.

As far as on-field stuff goes – Jakes’ willingness to tuck the ball and run this spring was a serious step forward in my opinion. For whatever reason, he refused to do that at times last season. And his athletic ability is what makes him a dangerous player, and it’s what ultimately keeps him in that starting role.

If he mixes solid accuracy from 8 to 15 yards with a serious run threat in his overall package – he could do some things in 2011.

Both quarterbacks had their passing struggles this spring, but remember that the receiving corps was absolutely decimated with injury.

Marcus Vasquez didn’t play a snap (he will in the fall), Jack Doyle was held out of most contact (he won’t be in the fall) and Willie McNeal went down early (he’s done for the season).

Doyle will be healthy, Vasquez will be healthy and tight end Tristan Jones should have a chance to be back on the field at some point after his season-ending knee injury early in the 2010 season.

But that pass-catching stuff brings me to my next point. …

– Someone has to emerge as a pass-catcher

Jack Doyle and Marcus Vasquez can’t do it all next fall, they’re going to need some help.

But where does it come from?

Rico Brown seemed to have the best camp of any wideout this spring, and he very well could end up as a starting wideout when WKU takes on Kentucky at LP Field to start the season.

Courtney Dalcourt made some strides with his new position, but he’s still trying to round back into football form after sitting out two years with a knee injury – and he has a long way to go at a new spot.

Jamarielle Brown is a player that Taggart waited on all year in 2010 to emerge, and he never really pulled it off. He was hit and miss this spring, and really will need a big-time summer to become a viable option next fall.

WKU does bring in talent with three-star recruits Boe Brand and Cameron Brown – and both could see the field right away. But they’re both true freshmen. If either one of those players is leaned on to be the No. 1 target next fall – WKU is in trouble.

Moving forward into the future I think you’ll see the Hilltopper wideouts become somewhat of an asset, but right now, they’re young, inexperienced and void of a true No. 1.

One wild card down the road (not in 2011, but further along) could be Jonathan Dowling.

Dowling was a safety at Florida and played the bulk of this spring as a defensive back as well. But his body type and athletic ability really does translate into a true No. 1 college receiver – in basically any conference in America.

He won’t be able to work out with the team during the season due to transfer rules, but down the road, I’d have a really – really – tough time not moving him from DB to WR. WKU has plenty of talent in its defensive backfield. And Dowling is without question the most athletically gifted person on the team. Having the opportunity to put the ball in his hands and see what happens could pay big dividends.

But I’m not the coach. So we’ll have to wait and see on that one.

– The offensive line struggled, but I wouldn’t be too worried

WKU will have to replace Preston King and Mychal Patterson next fall, two guys that saw a lot of snaps up front over a four-year span.

This spring served as a bit of a meshing period for some new faces – and the group in general did have some growing pains.

But Wes Jeffries is back, and he’s an all-conference caliber tackle. Sean Conway didn’t play much this spring due to injury, but he’s as solid a center as you’ll find in the Sun Belt.

Tackle Seth White had some big moments last year as a starter and a role player, and he could make a big jump in 2011. Luis Polanco is also a player that could make a big jump next season, as he forced his way onto the field last season – so much so that WKU often put a tight end number on him and inserted him as an extra blocker more often than not in 2010. That tight end number will be gone this year, and he has the tools to be a pretty good one.

Adam Smith was also limited this spring at guard due to bumps and bruises, but he played basically every snap last year – and he should be ready to roll once fall comes around.

Ed Hazelett always seems to be the wild card to me. He’s got NFL-type size at offensive tackle, but still has yet to actually make that big jump from tight end (his original position) over to lineman. Getting into supreme shape this summer will be big for him, and if everything clicks, WKU could have a gold mine on its hands with him.

There are other young players in there like Luke Stansfield and Cody Widelski that will have bigger roles this season as well.

It might take some more mesh time before everything clicks, but I’ve said before that longtime O-line coach Walt Wells is arguably WKU’s best position assistant, and if anyone can get that group going it’s him.

– Brass tacks time: What happens in 2011?

This team doesn’t look like the same group from spring-time 2010.

It doesn’t even resemble the unit that went 0-12 in 2009.

There is talent on this club, there’s size, there’s speed and more important than any of that – there’s confidence and a buy-in factor that hasn’t been there in some time.

Willie Taggart hasn’t been here two full years yet, but I can’t think of one player on his football team that wouldn’t eat concrete if he asked them to do so.

He’s in complete control of both his team – and his staff.

He’s old school in many ways, he’s passionate, he doesn’t really pull punches and he seems a bit off his rocker at times – which in my experience, means you’ve got the makings of a pretty good football coach.

In my estimation, overall, this team’s a year stronger, it’s a year faster and it’s a year smarter. And it’s still got a summer in front of it to improve.

As far as the season goes? That’s anyone’s guess. But the schedule does actually set itself up as well as it has since I’ve been here for WKU (that’s four seasons). There’s the neutral site game with Kentucky, home games against Navy and Indiana State and then the final non-league tilt later in the season at LSU (a true money game).

The standard-bearers in the Sun Belt next season will again be Florida International and Troy. From there, the league really does seem up for grabs at this point. It’ll be a competitive league once again, and it’s a league that’s getting better every season – but WKU was right there in basically every league game it played last season.

Meaning that if I’m the Hilltoppers, and I end the season anything worse than 6-6 – I’m really, really upset.

Call that crazy, but that’s the next step.

Taggart and company snapped that losing streak last season, and perhaps doubling a win total to four would be nice – but the on-field talent is definitely there for this team to legitimately eye a bowl-eligible season.

And now comes the fun part – as we get to sit back and see whether or not they can pull it off.




One response

18 04 2011

Nick I attended the game Sat. Question, is it me but it looked like the White team had more quality WRs and the Red team had basically third string and walk-ons? I really feel if you would switch QBs from teams you might be saying Doughty is MVP. I still feel Doughty has a lot to work on but hard to evaluate young Doughty by whom he was throwing too. He still needs more reps and maturity. The white was more pass first offense while the red was run first. I am not downplaying K1 he looked very good but I really feel the deck was on his side more then young Doughty. Doughty is still very young. This is probably his first with actual running the offense. Fall camp it was Matt and K1 and during the season where Doughty was basically on scout team. I will say K1 looked comfortable then last year. I feel that coaches loyalty with K1 was evident on how spring game ended. This was just my impression. Go Tops!!

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