(Note: This column ran in Saturday’s Daily News)
By Nick Baumgardner
The Daily News
Willie Taggart means it when he says it.
His players believe it when he says it.
As for the rest of us – we’ll have to believe it when we see it.
Because for the first time in several years, the fate of this year’s Western Kentucky football team appears to truly be mysterious.
Taggart’s been adamant since spring practice about the growth – mentally and physically – of his football team.
The Hilltoppers, who open fall camp at 8 a.m. today, took two mighty large steps in the right direction last season by snapping their 26-game losing streak with a road win over Louisiana-Lafayette, and then adding to that several weeks later with an overtime road victory over Arkansas State.
But on the flip side, the club still lost 10 games.
Taggart continued to draw buzz both locally and around the league this winter when he inked a recruiting class that was ranked as the best in the Sun Belt Conference for the second straight year, and furthermore, pulled a true coup by convincing former exiled Florida safety Jonathan Dowling to transfer to WKU. He took things one step further when he boldly voted his own club to finish first in the Sun Belt this season, despite a last-place finish last year.
But on the flip side, freshmen are still freshmen, Dowling has to sit out this season, and preseason polls generally make for good fire starter by late October.
WKU still has Bobby Rainey in its backfield, arguably the most consistent offensive player in the league. And junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes made a commitment to “grow up” this offseason by chopping off his trademark dreadlocks and dedicating himself to the film room.
But on the flip side, Rainey has no proven help at any other skill position, and a haircut doesn’t change the fact that Jakes – while improved – still struggled to grasp the complexities of the West Coast offense last season.
See where we’re going here?
But make no mistake – in less than two years the energetic Taggart has brought some optimism back into an otherwise depressing situation.
The coach’s bright smile, unrelenting passion about the university for which he once starred, reputation as a dogged recruiter, and up-and-coming college football mind has folks in Bowling Green at least paying attention.
But paying attention and being all-in aren’t the same thing.
And to his credit, Taggart seems to know that.
He doesn’t pretend that the program isn’t attempting to crawl out of its lowest point in history, and he knows that he and his roster will have to earn back the respect and admiration of all red towel-wavers across the commonwealth.
And, in the end, he knows that the only way he’ll force WKU fans to put both feet on the bandwagon is by winning – something that’s still very much eluded the Hilltopper roster.
As for what to expect this season? To me, that’s a toss-up.
And trust me when I say, that’s an improvement over recent years when it was almost a certainty that the club would struggle immensely.
WKU’s senior class will enter this season with a record of 4-32. Jakes will have to become more of a weapon this year and not just a huddle-runner. Outside of junior Marcus Vasquez, the Hilltopper receiving corps returns nine catches from a year ago and the entire linebacking corps has to be replaced this season.
But for the first time in some time, there’s a reverse here. There’s a positive flip side.
WKU has the school’s first true star of its Football Bowl Subdivision in Rainey. It has an all-conference-level tight end in Jack Doyle. It returns its entire secondary and defensive line and brings back a bevy of young, impressive talent that cut its teeth for the first time without training wheels last season.
The Hilltoppers also will play the most manageable nonconference schedule they’ve had since joining the FBS, as WKU plays Kentucky on a neutral field before hosting Navy and Indiana State to open the season.
There’s reason for optimism; there’s reason to be cautious.
And perhaps most important, there’s reason to be interested in WKU football once again.
To quote a Willie-ism: “Last year is history, this year is a mystery and today is an opportunity to determine our legacy.”
The 2011 season begins today – and all that’s left to do now is see how the great mystery unfolds.