Note: This was part of a four-part football season preview that previously ran in the Daily News
By NICK BAUMGARDNER
The Daily News
The word “balanced” wasn’t prominent in the Western Kentucky football team’s vocabulary in 2010.
WKU was one of the better rushing clubs in the Sun Belt Conference a season ago, led by SBC Offensive Player of the Year Bobby Rainey with his record-breaking season on the ground.
But through the air? That was a different story.
The Hilltoppers were last in pass offense last season in conference, and put up 143 yards per game through the air.
While the knee-jerk reaction last season was to saddle quarterback Kawaun Jakes with most of the blame for the low output, WKU coach Willie Taggart repeatedly defended his quarterback, saying that the numbers weren’t going to be there if no one was at the other end of a pass, catching the ball.
WKU had 16 players catch a pass last season and while a handful of players were bright spots at times, none of them proved to be consistent receiving threats.
Leading receiver Marcus Vasquez missed three games with a collarbone injury and sat out this spring in recovery. The team’s second best receiver a year ago, Willie McNeal, suffered a season-ending knee injury during spring drills and won’t see the field in 2011.
In addition, promising freshman wide receiver Donald Campbell left the team before spring practice began, and junior Dexter Haynes was placed on indefinite suspension due to a violation of team rules following the 2010 year.
Haynes did not practice during the spring, but has been cleared by Taggart to return to the field this fall.
From the tight end spot, junior Jack Doyle is one of the best at his position in the Sun Belt when healthy – but the Mackey Award watch-list member was hampered with a neck injury last season, forcing him to miss five games.
The biggest question marks for Hilltopper football entering the 2011 campaign rest among the players tasked with catching passes.
Incumbent: Marcus Vasquez, jr. (6-foot-1, 187 pounds)
Normally, there would be at least two incumbent top-line starters in this category, but with McNeal’s season-ending injury – and the lack of proven depth behind him – there isn’t.
Vasquez was WKU’s most impressive receiver over the first nine games of the 2010 season. After being converted into a wideout from his original quarterback position early in his career, Vasquez began to show his potential by making 30 catches for 332 yards and three scores in nine games.
The broken collarbone cost him his final three games last season, and forced him to miss the spring. He is, however, expected to be back in action this fall and will likely be the team’s unquestioned No. 1 receiver.
Next in line: Rico Brown, r-fr. (5-11, 185), Jamarielle Brown, so. (6-1, 175), Neil Wilson, so. (6-2, 201), Joel German, r-fr. (6-0, 185)
All four of the above impressed enough during spring practice to make their way onto the two-deep depth chart, but of the group, only Jamarielle Brown caught a pass last season.
And it was one catch for five yards.
Rico Brown was arguably the most impressive of the lot during spring drills, seemingly taking advantage of McNeal’s injury to force himself into the conversation for playing time.
All four will have a shot to make waves early this fall, but all still have plenty to prove.
The rest: Courtney Dalcourt, so. (5-11, 222), Cameron Brown, fr. (6-2, 205), Boe Brand, fr. (6-0, 144), Andrew Pettijohn, so. (5-8, 180), Dexter Haynes, jr. (6-4, 189)
Dalcourt is perhaps the most intriguing option here, as the former Franklin-Simpson standout quarterback took his first real strides to overcoming his two knee injuries at a new position this past spring. He still has plenty of catching up to do to become a legit college receiver, but if he catches on and shows flashes of his former self, things could get interesting.
Brown and Brand were both highly rated prospects out of high school that signed this winter, and both could have a chance to make an impact on WKU’s most wide-open position group. Brand is known as a speedster, while Brown – a former Minnesota commit – has the size to possibly make an impact.
Haynes would perhaps be higher on the list if he hadn’t found himself in a sticky situation off the field earlier this year. He’s been given the green light to return to the practice field, but he’ll have to prove to his teammates and to the coaching staff that he’s ready to take the next step in his career.
Incumbent: Jack Doyle, jr. (6-6, 244)
Easily the team’s best pass-catching option since his freshman season, Doyle had to fight through a lingering neck injury that forced him to miss five games a season ago.
He was a limited participant in spring drills earlier this year, and is scheduled to be ready to roll once fall camp opens.
Doyle has NFL-level size and ability at the tight end spot, and if he stays healthy, he’ll once again be one of the top two or three tight ends in the Sun Belt – and right up there with Bobby Rainey as WKU’s best offensive player.
Next in line: Demetrius Coley, so. (6-2, 247), Ryan Wallace, jr. (6-5, 248)
Wallace – the former Bowling Green High School standout – arrived on campus officially prior to spring practice as a transfer. Wallace has had stops at Colorado and Kentucky, but has yet to actually see a live game snap during his career.
He outplayed Coley enough during spring ball to move ahead of him on the depth chart, but Coley opened people’s eyes late last season when he filled in for an injured Jack Doyle. Coley showed potential as a pass catcher and blocker during the latter part of the year – and both he and Wallace should see playing time this season behind (or alongside) Doyle.
The rest: Mitchell Henry, fr. (6-4, 247), Tyler Higbee, fr. (6-5, 215), Devin Scott, fr. (6-4, 250), Jim Murphree, so. (6-5, 225)
Tight end is easily WKU’s deepest position on the field. Henry – an Elizabethtown product – leads a talented group of incoming freshmen that will make their debut this fall. He starred on the football field and basketball court at Elizabethtown, and ultimately chose WKU over Ole Miss.
Murphree is a former Franklin-Simpson standout who built up his frame last season and worked hard enough to get himself on the field when WKU’s tight end corps was hit with some injury issues.