WKU football – we hear the talk, now we need to see the walk

6 08 2011

(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.


WKU football – practice observations

6 08 2011

A few quick notes picked up from Western Kentucky’s first day of fall camp Saturday (Note – media is only allowed to watch the final 15-20 minutes of practice and true freshmen are not available):

Sized up

When WKU updated its roster last month with new heights and weights, it was easy to see a significant change across the board.

Several players added weight along the offensive and defensive lines, but those weren’t the only position groups that looked more mature physically.

One notable that stood out to me, from a size and look standpoint, was sophomore outside linebacker Xavius Boyd.

Boyd is listed at 6-2, 215 entering this season – but honestly looked larger than that.

He ran with the first-team defensive unit today, and seemed much more comfortable than he did last season – when he was forced into action as a true freshman.

Also, junior receiver Marcus Vasquez was back in full workout mode after missing the final portion of last season and all of spring practice with a collarbone injury.

And not only is Vasquez healthy, but he also finally seems to look like a legitimate college receiver. The former quarterback convert now comes in at a solid 6-1, 193 – and appears to have filled out his frame this summer, giving himself a chance to be more of a physical threat on the outside than he has been in the past.

He’ll need to be – because the Hilltopper receiving group is still severely undermanned.

Helmet cams

Quarterbacks Kawaun Jakes and Brandon Doughty each had miniature cameras attached to their helmets during live scrimmage drills Saturday.

The concept there is to allow the quarterbacks to watch practice film from a different angle, giving themselves a chance to see what they saw on the field in a much more controlled manner.

“This is the first day we’ve used these,” Jakes said. “I’m about to go watch what we got out of it on film, so I’m excited about that. We’ll be able to see what we saw on the field and see what we were looking at.”

Smith works with the twos

WKU’s first-string defensive line Saturday appeared to be Bo Adebayo, Jared Clendenin, Rammell Lewis and Jamarcus Allen – a group that did not include defensive end Quanterus Smith.

The junior defensive end and leading sack-man from a season ago finished spring practice as a backup on the team’s two-deep depth chart, and for the first day of fall camp, appeared to be in the same position.

WKU’s first-team linebackers Saturday were Tye Golden (ILB), Ben Duvall (OLB) and Xavius Boyd (OLB).

In the defensive backfield, it was Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright at corner, with Ryan Beard and Kareem Peterson at safety.

For a full report on WKU’s first day of fall camp, see Sunday’s Daily News

WKU opens fall camp

6 08 2011

Western Kentucky’s 2011 journey began this morning at Houchens-Smith Stadium – and as per usual – coach Willie Taggart had a few wrinkles up his sleeve.

Taggart dressed himself and his coaching staff in ‘blue collared’ work shirts Saturday as WKU opened its 2011 fall camp, bringing a visual to the second-year coach’s new message of ‘getting back to basics.’

“The guys understand about what we’re going to be about,” Taggart said afterward. “WKU’s always been blue-collar, that’s what we’re going to be about around here. We always worked for what we got.

“We all have somebody in our family that worked really hard to help us get to where we’re at – that’s blue-collar. We’re getting back to being that around here. … Getting back to that is a perfect fit for us.”

Taggart split the team into two groups for the first day of camp, and will continue to do so over the next three.

All the true freshmen and a handful of squad members from last season practiced alone with the coaching staff for roughly two and a half hours before the veterans took the field for the final two hours of practice alone.

Taggart said prior to camp that he hoped the new philosophy would give more individual time to the younger players, and allow the older players to practice more fluidly, and so far – he says it appears to be working.

“That went well,” he said. “It gave us coaches a chance to really evaluate those guys and really coach them up. We’ve got some nice freshmen and they look really good. They picked up on everything really quick.

“We’ll go evaluate this film, and hey, maybe a guy moves up to the ‘varsity’ level and maybe a guy drops back to the freshmen level. But overall it went well.”

The team was forced to go inside midway through practice due to lightning, but Taggart said the short delay didn’t deter the group’s focus – something that impressed him early.

“We had some adversity to work through today,” Taggart said of the weather. “We were into it everyone was ready and then we stopped. And that worries you. But guys stayed sharp, got excited to get back out and went back to playing ball.”

Taggart added that if there was anything he was disappointed with during the first day of practice, it was the team’s overall conditioning.

Something he says will have to improve quickly.

“We look the part, we look like a D-1 football team,” he said. “We looked bigger, stronger and faster – but I really didn’t feel like we were in the best shape overall.

“There was too much walking. I want guys running around all the time – so if there was a negative, that was it. Not enough running, too much walking.”