Last week I touched on five names that you might not know, but should get to know prior to the kickoff of Western Kentucky’s 2011 football season.
This week, sticking with the ‘5’s,’ we’ll look at the Hilltoppers’ five biggest weaknesses/areas that need improvement heading into this season’s campaign.
– Passing game
Kawaun Jakes was in fact a better quarterback in 2010 than he was in 2009 – and I’ll argue just about anyone who says otherwise.
But his numbers were anything but stellar.
He completed just barely more than 50 percent of his passes, threw for less than 1,700 yards in 12 starts and while he only tossed six interceptions, he only threw for 10 touchdowns.
Bobby Rainey led the nation in carries last season for two reasons: 1) he’s really good, 2) WKU couldn’t throw the ball consistently at all.
Now we can’t put all this on Jakes.
Marcus Vasquez and Willie McNeal had nice moments last season at wide receiver, but they were only ‘moments.’ Not consistent stretches. Vasquez’s season ended prematurely due to injury – while McNeal is out for the remainder of this season after suffering an injury in the spring.
Jack Doyle should be back healthy at tight end and should have plenty of help at that spot from the likes of Demetrius Coley, the newly-added Ryan Wallace and possibly Tristan Jones if he returns to health.
But that, my friends, is it as far as proven pass-catching talent.
If anyone was caught off-guard by Rainey’s success last season, they certainly won’t be this year. WKU cannot, absolutely cannot, be a one-sided football team this season if it hopes to improve on those two wins.
Jakes needs to take the next step as a playmaker in the pocket, and someone – anyone – needs to step forward and be a consistent pass-catching wide receiver at the FBS level.
It’d help to have two, but beggars can’t be choosers – I’d bet Willie Taggart will settle for one if he has to.
– Special teams
I’d be willing to bet that Hendrix Brakefield has a much better year punting the football than he did as a true freshman last season. As the year went on, Brakefield continued to improve – and showed that he’s got a very strong leg.
Remember, it really wasn’t until his sophomore season that Jeremy Moore (the most recent version of WKU’s long string of solid punters) started to take off.
So we’ll give him a pass.
The rest of it, however, needs work – and a lot of it.
WKU’s kick coverage teams were terrible last season – the Toppers allowed nearly 12-yards per punt return and nearly 24 yards per kick return.
In case you really didn’t know, neither of those are great – imagine that a kickoff is fielded at the 10, that means the opposition is generally starting a drive at around the 35. Yikes.
As far as the return game goes – things took a big blow when McNeal went down this spring. He was a freshmen All-American returner last year, and seemed to have a unique ability for finding cracks on the fly.
Bobby Rainey was a terrific kick returner as a sophomore – and did in fact field a few kicks this spring, but I would think he’d be a last resort given how important he is to the offense as a whole.
Jonathan Dowling looked really good returning kicks during the spring – but he can’t play this year due to transfer rules.
So chalk up another wide open slot for the taking in 2011.
From there we turn to actual placekicking. Now it’s not my intent to kick anyone while they’re down, here, but I think we all know how off this was last season.
This job should really, really be interesting to watch in the fall.
Will Casey Tinius bounce back from an absolutely nightmarish campaign in 2010? Will Monte Merrick take Tinius’ job – and keep it for the season? Will young Kevin Carrillo show up and steal everyone’s thunder come camp time?
Who knows – but I do know that it was wide open in the spring, and it’ll be wide open again in the fall.
Who wins it? My bet would go to Tinius due to his experience and the fact that he has had legit success in the past – but I’m not really confident betting on any of the three.
Should be interesting.
– Pass rush
This has been a thorn in WKU’s side for the better part of four seasons.
The Hilltoppers recorded just 12 sacks as a team last season – and believe it or not, that’s an improvement on the 2009 year.
That’s one sack per game, folks.
In just one more game last season, Troy recorded 40 sacks – that led the league.
If WKU wants to have a lights out defense, it has to get more production from that front four. The defensive backfield might be the most talented group in the Sun Belt, but none of that will really matter if the players up front can’t get any pressure in the backfield – or at least give the illusion of pressure.
Jared Clendenin is a senior, and has been a starter at defensive end for the better part of his entire career – meaning that he’s down to his last chance in terms of a breakout season sack-wise.
Quanterus Smith has shown flashes for two years of becoming a really tough player to block on the edge, and at times has looked scary good. But at other times, he’s vanished. He’s a junior, and I’m sure the coaching staff has told him that it’s becoming a now or never scenario – especially considering the fact that WKU signed four defensive ends this past winter.
Inside, Jamarcus Allen might have had the best spring of anyone on the team – being almost unblockable in the middle. Kenny Martin also had a much-improved season a year ago, and the arrival of 300-plus-pound Jamichael Payne won’t hurt anything.
Bottom line – WKU needs to find four guys who can tie up blocks and make the quarterback sweat.
If they make things difficult for the quarterback and let their talented secondary do its thing – WKU could possibly have a very good defense in 2011.
Not a lot you can do here in terms of teaching improvement – as this is just something that will come with time.
WKU will once again enter the season as one of the younger teams in America – as the Hilltoppers will dress just 11 seniors.
But the Hilltoppers do have a rather large junior class, and a ton of true freshmen saw action last season.
And even if most of that action was spent losing football games (WKU lost 10), it’s better than nothing.
For rebuilding purposes, the fact that most of WKU’s roster lies in the underclassmen category is a great thing – but for right not, not so much.
The Hilltoppers were in fact a more confident team in 2010 than they were in 2009.
But it’s hard not to improve on confidence when you were winless the year before.
WKU continued to make strides late last season and into this past spring, but we really won’t know how well that confidence holds up until the season gets rolling.
There were several opportunities squandered a year ago that a truly confident ballclub wouldn’t have allowed.
If WKU was a confident club – it would have either beaten league-champion FIU on the road or at least forced overtime. Instead, the Hilltoppers blew a chance late and fell 28-21.
If WKU was a confident club, there’s no way on Earth it would’ve had a 2009-like meltdown at home against Louisiana-Monroe – blowing a 24-7 lead in a 35-30 gut-wrenching loss.
Even as the season progressed – the overall notion of ‘confidence’ might have been overblown.
A team with swagger wouldn’t have allowed Middle Tennessee to tear its heart out on its home field by one point. It wouldn’t have laid down to North Texas and it certainly wouldn’t have lost by one to Florida Atlantic at home.
Catch my drift?
WKU needs some serious positive mojo and it needs it early.
Whether that comes in week one against Kentucky, week two at home vs. Navy or week three vs. FCS Indiana State – the Hilltoppers need to make themselves believe they’re a good football team.
Otherwise, WKU fans could be in for another season of ‘almost got ’em’ losses.