2012 WKU Preview
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - WKU Hilltoppers
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Head coach Willie Taggart deserves credit for coming up with one of the best turnaround jobs in college football over the last few seasons.
Head coach: Willie Taggart
3rd year: 9-15
Off. 23, Def. 23, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 10
Ten Best WKU Players
1. LB Andrew Jackson, Jr.
2. DE Quanterus Smith, Sr.
3. TE Jack Doyle, Sr.
4. S Kareem Peterson, Sr.
5. DT Jamarcus Allen, Sr.
6. OG Adam Smith, Sr.
7. C Sean Conway, Jr.
8. S Jonathan Dowling, Soph.
9. OT Cameron Clemmons, Soph.
10. LB Xavius Boyd, Jr.
Sep. 1 Austin Peay
Sep. 8 at Alabama
Sep. 15 at Kentucky
Sep. 22 Southern Miss
Sep. 29 at Arkansas St
Oct. 6 OPEN DATE
Oct. 11 at Troy
Oct. 20 ULM
Oct. 27 at FIU
Nov. 1 Middle Tenn.
Nov. 10 Florida Atlantic
Nov. 17 at Louisiana
Nov. 24 North Texas
No, he doesn't get the credit that Bill Snyder did bringing back Kansas State, and it might not be as strong as what Brady Hoke did in one year at Michigan, but remember, WKU was 0-12 in 2009 as part of a run of 26 straight losses. The program was building up from scratch after joining the Sun Belt, but it couldn't seem to do much of anything right. But Taggart did a great job of recruiting and started to slowly build up the talent base, and after starting last year 0-4 – bottoming out with a 44-16 loss to Indiana State – and looking like it would be business as usual, everything started to go right.
The Hilltoppers beat the mediocre Sun Belt teams, walloped Louisiana-Lafayette, and even gave LSU a run for a half before getting blown away in the second half. All that stood between WKU and an unbeaten Sun Belt title was a 26-22 fight against Arkansas State in the conference opener, but now Taggert appears to have the team in a position to win all of the tougher league games along with the mediocre.
With 17 starters returning and a while of a defense that appears to be poised and ready to be the Sun Belt's best, this is a new Hilltopper team from the last few seasons that appears to be coming into its own. There's an attitude now and there's a belief that winning should be expected and not just a bit of a shocker, and now the Sun Belt title is a real live possibility, when just coming up with just one victory seemed like a big deal in early October of last year.
And now there's motivation beyond just trying to make a big run at a good season. The Hilltoppers beat FIU 10-9, but the Golden Panthers went to the Beef O'Brady's Bowl and lost to Marshall. They destroyed the Ragin' Cajuns of ULL, who went on to beat San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl. WKU got hosed in the bowl pecking order, and now it's time to make amends with a big year.
The defense is going to be phenomenal and the offense, with a little bit of time, should terrific. The coaching is top-notch and the expectations are realistically high. It's all there for the dramatic turnaround to be complete.
What To Watch For On …
Offense: Running back Bobby Rainey is gone after carrying the team for the last few years, but head coach Willie Taggert knows how to get big numbers out of his backs and he has a new good one to work around. Anthony Wales was the team's top recruit and might be the main man right away, but Antonio Andrews looked the part of a top back this offseason. Quarterback Kawaun Jakes has been around long enough to start taking on a bigger role. He has to keep the interceptions to a minimum and he needs to do more with a veteran group that gets back eight of the top nine targets – Rainey is the only one missing. All-star Jack Doyle should be one of the league's best tight ends, but the wideouts have to start producing hoping Marcus Vasquez comes back 100% from a knee problem. Four starters are back up front led by center Sean Conway, one of the Sun Belt's toughest and steadiest blockers.
Defense: Seven starters return with three back up front including Quanterus Smith, one of the Sun Belt's top pass rushers and nose tackle Jamarcus Allen a tough anchor on the nose. The line might be the team's biggest strength, but the team's best player is linebacker Andrew Jackson, a huge hitting machine who's built like a smallish tackle but moves sideline to sideline like a safety. He's not alone with running mate Xavius Boyd a versatile outside defender who can do a little of everything. Florida transfer Jonathan Dowling is expected to blow up at free safety, but strong safety Kareem Peterson should be the star of the secondary if he can stay healthy.
What to watch for on offense: Who's going to run the ball? Rainey finished second in the nation in rushing and closed out his great career with 4,542 yards, 35 touchdowns and 80 catches for 682 yards and five scores. Taggart has no problems running his backs into the ground, but this year there should be more of a committee approach with a few nice options to play around with. True freshman Anthony Wales is the team's top recruit, and while he might not be built to handle the ball 30 times again, he's a top talent who could've been a key factor at several BCS schools. Antonio Andrews is a bigger back with a little bit of experience, while Keshawn Simpson is a 243-pound thumper who can bring it between the tackles. Taggart will go with the hot hand, but he'll make sure everyone stays fresh.
What to watch for on defense: How fast can the secondary come together? The Hilltoppers were mediocre against the pass last season despite the help of a great pass rush, but they get plenty of help with top transfer Jonathan Dowling, a transfer from Florida, ready to make a huge splash at safety. Kareem Peterson is a nice safety with big hitting ability, and Tyree Robinson should be one of the league's best corners. The starting foursome should be terrific, but now the pressure is on and the expectations are high to get much, much more.
The team will be far better if … The turnovers slow to a crawl. WKU gave it up 23 times last year, but 15 of the turnovers came in the first four games of the season – all losses. Four giveaways led to the stunning gack against Indiana State, and four picks ruined any hope of upsetting Kentucky. Over the last eight games of the year, WKU managed to turn it over just eight times and didn't have any meltdown moments. This is a good, strong Hilltopper team, but it's not so good that it can live with a slew of screw-ups.
The schedule: It's going to be a rocky first part of the season with a nice opener against Austin Peay before having to deal with road trips to Alabama and Kentucky. The home date against Southern Miss certainly won't be easy, especially with all the focus on the showdown the week after at Araknsas State to kickoff Sun Belt action. There's a tough run of four road games in five dates and five road games in seven, but the payoff comes late with three of the final four games at home. However, the road game is at Louisiana-Lafayette, meaning the games against the four other top Sun Belt teams – Arkansas, Troy and FIU included – are all on the road.
Best offensive player: Senior TE Jack Doyle. It's not like he's going to catch 75 passes in this offense and he's not an elite blocker, but the 6-6, 251-pound veteran is a terrific veteran who served as a perfect safety valve leading the team with 52 catches for 614 yards. He didn't score, but that's not all that big a deal considering what he was able to do to move the chains. A tall, talented receiver who can outjump just about anyone, he has all the tools and he has all the talent to get a long look from the NFL types and get even more work his way this year.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Andrew Jackson. A guided missile of a hitter, the 6-1, 262-pound middle linebacker eats up everything making 109 stops with 13.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in a do-it-all campaign. He showed right away that he was going to be a force making 12 big stops and a sack against Kentucky, and he kept up the production in an even and consistent year handling everything that was funneled his way.
Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Kawaun Jakes. He's not going to throw for 4,000 yards and he's not going to make the passing game shine, but he's a veteran who has been around long enough as the starter to be steadier. It will be his job to make a few third down throws and to not turn the ball over, a huge problem on both fronts early last year. With Rainey gone and a receiving corps full of veterans the passing game needs to start doing more and Jakes has to play like a starter going into his fourth year.
The season will be a success if … the Hilltoppers win the Sun Belt title. It's not fair and it's not easy with all of the top conference games on the road, but WKU isn't going to shoot for anything less than a championship after all the success of last year. Realistically, just coming up with a winning season would be nice considering all the tough games early on and with the roughest possible Sun Belt slate.
Key game: Sept. 29 at Arkansas State. Call it the revenge game for the lone Sun Belt loss from last season, but also call it one of the biggest games in the Sun Belt title chase. With so many other big games on the road, if WKU can't come up with a win against the Red Wolves in the opener, the pressure will be on to be perfect the rest of the way to have any shot at winning the Sun Belt title.
2011 Fun Stats:
- Time of Possession: WKU 35:08 – Opponents 24:52
- Field Goals: Opponents 11-of-17 – WKU 5-of-20
- Kickoff Return Average: WKU 26.1 yards - Opponents 18.8 yards
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