No. 109: Western Kentucky
By Paul Myerberg // May 13, 2011
Take your time, Western Kentucky. The process of moving from the F.C.S. to the F.B.S. is a slow and laborious procedure, one that involves patience and thoroughness, not speed and impetuousness. Well, maybe a little faster. Just pick up the pace a bit. You’re getting there, come on, one step at a time. Nearly one win at a time, in fact: two to zero and back to two in three years. Alright, if you keep up this pace we’ll see you in bowl play in 2014 or thereabouts — in other words, it’s time to get moving. One real measure of progress, if you put trust in one prognosis: from 120 to 120 to 118 to 109 on the Countdown. Now that’s the type of slow and laborious process I’m talking about.
Bowling Green, Ky.
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
Kentucky (in Nashville)
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 6
at Middle Tennessee
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
at North Texas
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
Wins many come eventually, but they are certainly not coming in 2010. That schedule, as noted, won’t help. The Hilltoppers are sure to open up 0-4 due to its tough month of non-conference action. Things do get easier from there, as W.K.U. faces a four-game stretch of Florida International, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas, the latter at home. Would I be surprised if the Hilltoppers did split their games in October? Maybe a bit. But remember, this program has recruited very well over the last three recruiting cycles, and the freshmen and sophomore who took their lumps (and then some) in 2008 and 2009 may finally have the requisite experience to match up to the standard of play in the Sun Belt. Is a six- or five-win season a pipe dream? Undoubtedly.
In a nutshell I’m telling you: Western Kentucky will someday – at some point in the indefinite future – win football games with consistency. Last season marked another step in that direction, even if the win total was altogether unsatisfying. This was a team that went 0-12 in 2009, however, so even two wins marks an improvement, just not a significant one. The Hilltoppers were more competitive, scoring some points on Kentucky, hanging around with Indiana and South Florida, winning two Sun Belt games on the road and playing well down the stretch, all things rarely seen over the program’s first two seasons of existence on the F.B.S. level. Not that the team was very good, or proficient on either side of the ball, but the team was better than it was in 2009, which is a start. If W.K.U. is following in Florida International’s footsteps, competitiveness in Sun Belt play is followed by a few more wins, which is then followed by a run at the conference title. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but last fall was a start, believe it or not.
High point Two road wins over Sun Belt foes. One was pretty surprising, if only in the offensive explosion: 54 points at Louisiana-Lafayette, even if the Cajuns were terrible. Three weeks later, the Hilltoppers upended Arkansas State 36-35 in overtime, with that win also coming on the road.
Low point The Hilltoppers still finished last in the Sun Belt, which is as bad as it sounds. Losses came to good teams and bad, but no loss was worse than a 27-point defeat at home to North Texas.
Tidbit Who is the most decorated member of the W.K.U. football program? That honor goes to none other than video coordinator Hank Wilson, who has been recognized for his work by his peers for two years running. Wilson was named the Sun Belt Video Coordinator of the Year by the Collegiate Sports Video Association in both 2010 and 2011, and was named the National Video Coordinator of the Year in 2010, according to Western Kentucky. One issue: Western Kentucky says Wilson was the national award winner last year, but the winner of the Bob Matey National Video Coordinator of the Year award in 2010 was L.S.U.’s Doug Aucoin. Matey, by the way, was the pioneering video coordinator at Texas A&M from 1987-97. So I don’t know what to believe anymore.
Tidbit (scoring edition) Despite the program’s recent struggles, Western Kentucky still holds one meaningful Sun Belt record: the Hilltoppers haven’t been shutout in 107 games, the longest active streak in the conference. The scoring stretch dates back to a 14-0 loss to Western Illinois in 2002, though the Hilltoppers would go on to win the Division I-AA national championship that fall.
Former players in the N.F.L.
1 WR Curtis Hamilton (New Orleans).
Arbitrary top five list
Important Civil War battles in Kentucky
5. Ivy Mountain.
Willie Taggart (Western Kentucky ’98), 2-10 after one season. Taggart returned to W.K.U. as a former player – a program great, in fact – and a former assistant. This type of familiarity with a program, its fan base and its yearly expectations places Taggart well ahead of the curve of the typical first-year coach on the F.B.S. level. He set a handful of school records as a quarterback at Western Kentucky from 1995-98, playing under the W.K.U. coaching legend Jack Harbaugh. He joined the elder Harbaugh’s staff immediately after exhausting his eligibility, spending the 1999 season as the wide receivers coach. Over the next seven seasons Taggart coached the quarterbacks (2000-6) and served as both the co-offensive coordinator (2001-2) and assistant head coach (2003-6). The Hilltoppers did not suffer a losing season during Taggart’s time as an assistant, winning at least eight games every year from 2000-4 and the F.C.S. national championship in 2002. He was hired away from W.K.U. by Stanford and Jim Harbaugh – Jack’s son – in 2007 as the new Cardinal running backs coach. Taggart was instrumental in orchestrating two of the most prolific rushing attacks in program history from 2008-9, and helped Stanford’s Toby Gerhart finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2009. His experience – and level of success – on the B.C.S. conference level only increased his appeal to the university, which was able to hit upon not only a young, energetic coach with an impressive resume, but one with a built-in comfort level in his new position.
Tidbit (coaching edition) The Hilltoppers have two new coordinators, and it’s hard not to be impressed with both. Few had heard of new defensive coordinator Lance Guidry prior to last season’s GoDaddy.com Bowl, but the job he did leading Miami (Ohio) to victory in Mike Haywood’s stead – and his locker room speech – put his name on the coaching map. Taggart signed Zach Azzanni, formerly of Florida, as his offensive coordinator; Azzanni will also coach the receivers, as he did during his one year with the Gators and over the previous three seasons at Central Michigan, his alma mater. One only hopes that Azzanni tweaks his offense to resemble the pre-2010 Gators.
Players to watch
Run left. Run right. Run up the middle. Repeat. Bobby Rainey had only 246 carries in 2010 – during conference play, mind you. Rainey carried the ball 340 times over 12 games, a number that led the F.B.S.; it also would have led the N.F.L., whose leader finished the year with 334 carries. So he’s the offense, pure and simple, from top to bottom – or to the left, the right and up the middle. Last season’s pounding came both due to Rainey’s production (1,649 yards, 15 scores) and a lack of other options, a trend seen nearly across the board and a definite issue for Taggart to address in 2011. No other back carried the ball more than 32 times, so the Hilltoppers need reserves like Antonio Andrews and Keshawn Simpson to step up and help carry the load. Knowing how important Rainey is to his team’s hopes, Taggart held him out of contact drills during the spring. One note on Rainey: he’s not a Heisman contender by any stretch, but he’d warrant some all-American consideration if he has another season like last.
We know Rainey will get his numbers, barring injury. What we don’t know is whether quarterback Kawaun Jakes is ready to take on a larger role in this offense. Western Kentucky’s inability to move the ball through the air led to the extremely unbalanced offensive attack in 2010, and it’s up to Jakes to lead the offense to something closer to a 50-50 split running and throwing. Can he get it done? Jakes is due to improve, merely based on his experience, but it wasn’t pretty last fall: 1,680 yards and 10 scores while completing a bit more than 50 percent of his attempts. He’s really the only option, as redshirt freshman Brandon Doughty isn’t ready. So it’s on Jakes to improve – maybe the new offense will help.
Rainey also made his impact felt in the passing game, finishing second on the team with 29 catches, but the biggest factor in Jakes’ development might be the healthy return of tight end Jake Doyle, who missed five games a year ago. When injury-free, Doyle was Western Kentucky’s best option: he made 20 grabs in those seven games, including 7 for 94 yards and a score against South Florida. Held out for part of the spring as a precaution, Doyle should be a prominent figure in the passing game come September. Also back: junior Marcus Vasquez, who led the Hilltoppers in receptions (30) and touchdowns (3). Sophomore Neil Wilson and redshirt freshman Rico Brown round out the starting lineup at receiver, with the latter one of several intriguing young prospects looking at major snaps.
Western Kentucky’s defensive allergies – tackling was an issue, among other things – led Taggart to make that quick change on his coaching staff. Say one thing about Guidry: he’s a fiery, emotional leader, as his time at Miami (Ohio) illustrated, and he’ll ask for nothing less than top-notch effort from his defense. So the returning starters must accept the challenge of going 100 percent, non-stop, while Guidry evaluates what he has to work with and the Hilltoppers look to replace three lost starters.
Guidry has some talent to work with up front. Junior Jamarcus Allen, a solid signing when he chose the Hilltoppers over South Florida coming out of high school, has the ability to really make a difference along the inside of the defensive line. W.K.U. lost his running mate inside in Kenny Martin, but could promote junior James Hervey or Rammell Lewis from reserve roles to fill his shoes. The ends are good: Quenterus Smith (team-leading 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks) could be very good, but in a surprise depth chart move finds himself behind senior Bo Adebayo, running with the second team, as the Hilltoppers enter the summer. Smith will be back on top come September, I feel confident in saying, when he’ll team with senior Jared Clendenin for one final season.
Continuing with Guidry: his background is primarily with linebackers, which is a good thing – he’ll have his hands full with a pretty new group. To be honest, the linebacker corps remains such a work in progress that it’s difficult to really project a starting threesome; you can begin to guess which group Guidry will choose from, however. That group includes brothers Xavius and Bar’ee Boyd, sophomores who logged plenty of snaps as rookies. Also in the mix? Junior Tye Golden should be considered the favorite in the middle. Tyler Julian, a former walk-on, impressed during the spring. And the Hilltoppers have a well-regarded linebacker prospect arriving in the fall in freshman Daerius Washington, who in a perfect world should redshirt but might be called upon early.
Any worries in the secondary? A few, but this group is in far better shape than the linebackers, and should be the strength of the defense. Things to work on: creating turnovers – only eight interceptions as a team last fall – and making things a bit more difficult for opposing quarterbacks, who hit on more than 62 percent of their attempts a year ago. Blaming the secondary solely for that type of accuracy is ridiculous, of course, as an improved pass rush would help matters immensely.
The secondary as a whole is young enough to expect an improvement, though also young enough to expect more growing pains in 2011. Take cornerback, for example: sophomores Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright (team-best three interceptions) were good as a freshman and should be better as second-year players. They really stepped into a bad situation last fall – starting as freshmen – but acquitted themselves well, which bodes well for each player’s future. Another sophomore, strong safety Kiante Young, made 45 tackles and an interception in 2010. The Hilltoppers have two good options at free safety, where Guidry can go with either Kareem Peterson (41 tackles, 1 interception) or Ryan Beard (71 tackles) – not a bad problem to have. Outside of that spot, however, I do worry a bit about depth in the secondary.
The big picture on defense: Western Kentucky has some talent and depth up front and in secondary, that’s true. And Taggart added a good new coordinator with Guidry. I still think the defense is a year away: one year to add even more depth along the defensive line, as well as develop the three juniors due to start; another year for the three sophomores defensive backs to grow as starters; and another year to fix a troublesome situation at linebacker.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Two starters must be replaced off an offensive line that got it done in the running game last fall, though the Hilltoppers were no better than average in protecting the quarterback. One lost starter, right tackle Preston King, factored heavily into W.K.U.’s ground success on the strong side of the line. He’ll be replaced by junior Seth White, which makes sense: White made two October starts in King’s stead last fall. Same at left guard, where junior Luke Stansfield – one start in 2010 – replaces Mychal Patterson. The song remains the same elsewhere: Wes Jeffries, now a senior, at left tackle; Sean Conway at center, a year removed from starting all 12 games as a freshman; and junior Adam Smith at right guard. So what’s the big deal? It isn’t so much about the position battle, though there is some interesting competition going on to complete the two-deep, particularly at both tackle spots. It’s more about maintaining last season’s effectiveness running the football while replacing two starters, which doesn’t sound like much but has derailed better, more experienced returning groups. Doing a better job keeping Jakes clean would also be nice to see, but it starts with the ground game.
Game(s) to watch
Want to climb up the Sun Belt ladder? Then beat the worst teams the conference has to offer – and in the process stop being one of the worst teams the conference has to offer. So games against Arkansas State, both Louisiana schools and North Texas are vital to Western Kentucky’s hopes of reaching respectability.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Progress, progress, progress. Slow and steady doesn’t really win the race – or the Sun Belt – but the type of step by step progression evident at Western Kentucky will lead to conference competitiveness, though perhaps not in 2011. Well, I do want to say one thing: Western Kentucky, like North Texas, could make things very interesting in the Sun Belt, even if the Hilltoppers don’t have what it takes to make a tremendous jump to a conference title. How good can this team be? I think W.K.U. could go 5-7, winning four games in the Sun Belt, though that’s on the upper end for victories. It’s more likely that the Hilltoppers are good enough to win three games in the Sun Belt, which in addition to a win over Indiana State would leave the team with an F.B.S.-best four wins. Progress? You better believe it. On the other hand, there are still enough question marks for this team to again finish with two wins, which would be a slight disappointment. But let’s not measure this team’s development merely in the win column, as even if the Hilltoppers are improved we might not see a substantial gain in that category. But this is without question the program’s best team on the F.B.S. ranks, and will exhibit this growth in 2011. Bottom line: I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hilltoppers go 2-10 again, as the team still isn’t that talented, or deep, or experienced; at the same time, I would be surprised but not altogether shocked to see W.K.U. factor in the Sun Belt race. Not as a potential conference champ, mind you, but as a team that upsets the conference pecking order by beating an additional team or two between October and the end of the year.
Dream season The Hilltoppers move up the Sun Belt ladder ahead of schedule, missing out on bowl play but finishing with an F.B.S.-high six wins, five coming in conference play.
Nightmare season From two wins to zero to two wins back to zero – that’s unexpected, and would be an absolute nightmare for Western Kentucky.
In case you were wondering
Where do Western Kentucky fans congregate? The undisputed king of Western Kentucky online chatter is Hilltopper Haven. You can also check out the W.K.U. sports blog from the Bowling Green Daily News, though I’m still waiting for a fan-run Western Kentucky blog.
Through 12 teams 31,721.
Who is No. 108? Tomorrow’s university was the only institution in its home state to offer a zero percent cost increase for tuition, room and board for students enrolled during the 2010-11 academic school year.
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Tags: Bobby Rainey, Kawaun Jakes, Lance Guidry, Quanterus Smith, Sun Belt, Western Kentucky, Willie Taggart
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