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2011 Western Kentucky Preview
WKU RB Bobby Rainey
WKU RB Bobby Rainey
Posted Jun 20, 2011 2011 Preview - Western Kentucky Hilltopper Preview

WKU Hilltoppers

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Willie Taggart
2nd year: 2-10
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 17, Def. 23, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 12
Ten Best WKU Players
1. RB Bobby Rainey, Sr.
2. OT Wes Jeffries, Sr.
3. TE Jack Doyle, Jr.
4. DE Quanterus Smith, Jr.
5. DE Jared Clendenin, Sr.
6. CB Tyree Robinson, Soph.
7. CB Arius Wright, Soph.
8. OT Seth White, Jr.
9. OG Adam Smith, Jr.
10. FS Kareem Peterson, Jr.
2011 Schedule

Sep. 1 Kentucky (in Nashville)
Sep. 10 Navy
Sep. 17 Indiana State
Oct. 1 Arkansas State
Oct. 6 at Middle Tenn.
Oct. 15 at Florida Atlantic
Oct. 22 Louisiana
Oct. 29 at ULM
Nov. 5 FIU
Nov. 12 at LSU
Nov. 19 at North Texas
Nov. 26 Troy

If 2-10 can look decent, WKU was able to pull it off.

The Hilltoppers beat just one FBS team in their first four years of existence at the upper level, and they failed to beat anyone in 2009, but things started to improve in 2010 in head coach Willie Taggart’s first season. Yeah, there was an 0-6 start, but they hung around on the road with eventual Sun Belt champion FIU and lost to ULM 35-30 before blowing away Louisiana in a cathartic 54-21 bombing. Throw in two one point losses to Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee, and WKU was close to turning a corner into the land of the merely mediocre.

For a program that struggled so much, just being competitive was a great first step under Taggart, and the athleticism is improving and the talent level is growing fast enough to expect an even bigger leap ahead. It’ll take some big seasons from a few key players who struggled too much last year, and it’ll take a little luck, but as FIU showed last year, anything is possible for a team full of veterans mixed in with talented players who get a chance to shine.

Everything starts in the backfield with Bobby Rainey, the nation’s third leading rusher, who put off the NFL as an all-purpose back to be a prime Sun Belt Player of the Year candidate. As long as he’s alive and kicking, the Hilltoppers have an offense that should be able to control most conference games. If there’s any semblance of improvement in the woeful passing game, and there should be with QB Kawaun Jakes back for another year and with a few good targets to work with, the offense is in place.

The defense was the biggest improvement last year, and while the linebacking corps is suspect the pieces are there to be even stronger. The secondary has several great young players, especially at corner, and the line is loaded with decent veterans especially on the end.

No, this might not be a Sun Belt champion team now, but Taggert showed enough in his first season to suggest that titles might be on the way soon. That might be a lot to assume from one 2-10 campaign, but there really is reason to be excited.

What to watch for on offense: The maturation and improvement of Kawaun Jakes. The junior quarterback struggled at times last year with the passing game and he didn’t do enough to consistently get the offense moving, but he had his moments. More than just a guy who’ll hand it off to Bobby Rainey, Jakes appears to be ready to take on more of a leadership role. Symbolically, it started with cutting off his dreadlocks and saying he’s planning on being more active in being the team’s main man. If he can come up with more of a passing game, the offense will be more balanced and far more effective.

What to watch for on defense: The corners. The defensive line is experienced and the linebacking corps needs a lot of work, but the secondary should be terrific in a little bit of time. Three sophomores will start with two strong corners in Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright and has a good playmaker in senior Derrius Brooks, who led the team with three picks. The line might have several veteran ends, but the pass rush isn’t going to be stellar. That means the very quick, very promising corners have to start doing even more and have to lock down the outside.

The team will be far better if … there’s a passing game. WKU finished 115th in the nation in passing and last in the Sun Belt, and it was the league’s least efficient passing attack and was 107th in the nation. While the team relies on the ground game, throwing for fewer than 100 yards in three of the final four games, with losses in all three, there has to be some semblance of production. There were only six picks, but the Hilltoppers were 0-5 when they failed to throw a touchdown pass.

The schedule: Unlike last year when WKU started out the year against Nebraska, playing Kentucky in Nashville – last year’s 63-28 loss aside - is more manageable. It’ll still be a loss, but it should be competitive, while facing Navy and Indiana State should be interesting. There’s a November money-making date at LSU, but by that point the team will be knee-deep in Sun Belt play. The games against the league’s three best teams, Arkansas State, FIU, and Troy, are all at home, but that means there can’t be too many misses on the road. With five road games in six weeks before closing out against Troy, the slate is hardly easy, but it’s not awful.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Bobby Rainey. The 5-8, 205-pounder showed that 2010 would be special with a 155-yard day at Nebraska, and he followed it up with a 184-yard day against Kentucky and a 105-yard performance against Indiana. The ultimate workhorse with 340 carries and 29 catches, he held up surprisingly well and closed out on fire with three 150-plus yard games in the final four. The other game was a 45-carry, 248-yard, two touchdown effort against Middle Tennessee. There are more options in the backfield now and he doesn’t have to carry it so much, but he’ll still be the main man.

Best defensive player: Junior DE Quanterus Smith. The defense came up with just 12 sacks last year and didn’t generate nearly enough production into the backfield. The 6-5, 246-pound Smith is one of the few Hilltoppers who can rush the passer and could be turned loose. He only came up with four sacks on the year with 10.5 tackles for loss, but that makes him Lawrence Taylor on this team. For the defense to be more disruptive, he needs to do even more.

Key player to a successful season: Senior PK Casey Tinius. WKU loses two games last year by one point, and while there weren’t any field goal attempts against Florida Atlantic, Tinius missed from 46 and 34 yards out in the loss to Middle Tennessee. On the year he connected on just 6-of-15 field goals, and now he has to prove he can come through on a more consistent basis to inspire a bit more confidence. If WKU has improved just a little bit, a few timely kicks could make all the difference between another lousy year and a decent one.

The season will be a success if … WKU wins five games. While there’s just enough experience returning and just enough talent to have a shot at a winning season if everything breaks the right way, improving by three games would be good enough. A win over Indiana State has to be a given, and four Sun Belt victories isn’t asking for the world. It might take an upset or two to get it done, but the program has to take another step forward and 5-7 could be it.

Key game: Oct. 1 vs. Arkansas State. The Hilltoppers second victory of 2010 came against the Red Wolves, and now the two teams square off in the Sun Belt conference opener. Coming off the Indiana State game, and assuming the Kentucky and Navy games are losses, a win over ASU would mean a 2-2 start while matching last season’s win total by the first weekend of October. With three road games in the next four dates, a win could be a must.

2010 Fun Stats:
- Time of Possession: WKU 33:03 – Opponents 26:57
- Penalties: Opponents 90 for 734 yards – WKU 75 for 556 yards
- 4th Quarter Scoring: Opponents 149 – WKU 77

- 2011 WKU Preview | 2011 WKU Offense
- 2011 WKU Defense | 2011 WKU Depth Chart