CFN Preview 2013 - WKU Hilltoppers
WKU RB Antonio Andrews
WKU RB Antonio Andrews
Posted Jul 6, 2013 2013 Preview - Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

WKU Hilltoppers

Preview 2013

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Bobby Petrino
1st year
9th year: 75-26 overall
Returning Lettermen: 40
Off. 16, Def. 17, ST 6
Lettermen Lost: 13
Ten Best WKU Players
1. RB Antonio Andrews, Sr.
2. LB Andrew Jackson, Sr.
3. S Kiante Young, Sr.
4. S Jonathan Dowling, Jr.
5. LB Xavius Boyd, Sr.
6. OT Cameron Clemmons, Jr.
7. WR Willie McNeal, Jr.
8. CB Arius Wright, Sr.
9. P Hendrix Brakefield, Sr.
10. CB Tyree Robinson, Sr.
2013 Schedule
8/31 Kentucky
9/7 at Tennessee
9/14 at South Alabama
9/21 Morgan State
9/28 Navy
10/3 at ULM
10/16 Louisiana
10/26 Troy
11/2 at Georgia State
11/9 at Army
11/23 at Texas State
11/30 Arkansas State
Bobby Petrino might only be destined to be the head coach at Western Kentucky for one year, but there's a chance it could be a really, really special season.

But before Petrino grabs all the headlines in his return after his year out of the spotlight, part of the reason this has the potential to be such a great year has to do with the tremendous work put in by his predecessor, Willie Taggart, who took over a woeful program and made it a Sun Belt power. It wasn't all that long ago when the Hilltoppers struggled through an 0-12 2009 and a 2-10 2010, and now there's talent, athleticism, and the potential to do far more than simply get back to a bowl game. Basically, it's the perfect situation for Petrino.

16 starters return with speed, talent and depth almost everywhere. The offense should be far stronger with all-purpose yardage machine Antonio Andrews at running back working behind a good line, and even with a change at quarterback and the loss of a few receivers, offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm and the rest of the coaches should be able to coax more than 387 yards per game.

Big-hitting linebacker extraordinaire Andrew Jackson leads a loaded defensive back seven that should be the best in the Sun Belt – helped by getting all four veteran defensive backs back. While the line needs four new starters up front, Gavin Rocker is a great-looking pass rusher and the JUCO ranks should help out the tackles. Add a great punter in Hendrix Brakefield and a nice kicker in Garrett Schwettman, and the special teams should be a plus, too. But the WKU season and focus will still be about the head coach.

With the controversy well in the rearview mirror, compared to some of the transgressions of other beleaguered coaches, Petrino's issues really weren't that big a deal. Even so, now it's time to go through the rehabilitation process as he pays his penance before getting the call from a bigger program. While that's not to knock Western Kentucky, the reality is that its current head coach needs a little more time. It's also the reality that he was probably the best new coaching hire of the 2013 offseason.

Forget for a moment about how the Arkansas situation fizzled, and dismiss all the other issues with the Atlanta Falcons and Louisville Cardinals; Petrino is a whale of a college football coach. While he might not have the national championships on the résumé, for what he's been able to do over the course of his college coaching career, he's as good as any coach in the game not named Saban or Meyer. So while this is probably nothing more than a stepping-stone to Illinois, or Texas A&M if Kevin Sumlin goes to the NFL, or some other BCS gig, for now, he's Western Kentucky's.

What to watch for on offense: The pro-style attack. Petrino and Brohm will use what they have at their disposal to get the ball to Andrews as much as possible, but they have a good enough line and speedy enough receivers to crank up more with the passing game. Finding a steady quarterback is still a must, but there should be more downfield passing and more big plays across the board. This coaching staff knows how to get an offense moving, and this one won't need much tweaking before it starts to crank things up.

What to watch for on defense: The defensive front. The linebacking corps is outstanding and the secondary is terrific, but the success should all come down to how quickly the front four can replace ends Quanterus Smith and Cole Tischer and tackles Jamarcus Allen and Rammell Lewis. Gavin Rocker will be the team's new star pass rush, and there are some interesting options in the interior, but it might take a little while to get everything in place. With Kentucky and Tennessee to start the season, that's not a good thing. This goes hand-in-hand with …

The team will be far better if … the pass rush is steady. The defense wasn't a brick wall throughout the season against the pass, and it only broke down badly against the run in losses to Louisiana and Middle Tennessee, but the season took a wild turn when the pass rush stopped. Oddly enough, one of the best days of the year from the front four came in the 35-0 loss to Alabama, cranking up six sacks against the superior national championship-level line, but after a season-high nine sacks against FIU, everything started to fizzle. The pass rush generated just three sacks over the final five games and went 1-4 in that span. The secondary might be full of veterans, and there are plenty of great tacklers, but the pass rush needs to help the cause.

The schedule: The Hilltoppers might be good enough to come up with a split in the SEC openers against Kentucky and Tennessee, and then it's on to Sun Belt play with a trip to South Alabama. Kicking off with the date against Morgan State, WKU has just one away game from September 21st until November – an October 3rd Thursday night game at ULM. Week off to prepare for Louisiana is nice, and getting another bye week before going finishing up with Texas State and Arkansas State will be a huge help.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Antonio Andrews. When you're in the discussion with Barry Sanders for anything, you're doing something big. He almost surpassed Sanders' 1988 season for all-purpose yards as an elite kickoff returner to go along with his rushing and receiving skills. Tough and able to handle the workload, he's going to get the ball in a variety of ways again and will be the centerpiece of the offense as well as the special teams. Other backs will help take the heat off, but he'll be it's his job to do big things whenever he has the ball in his hands.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Andrew Jackson. He announced his arrival on the scene two years ago with 12 tackles and a sack with two tackles for loss in the 14-3 opening weekend loss to Kentucky, and he didn't stop hitting the rest of the way. Last season he became even more of an open field playmaker, coming up with 78 solo stops after generating 41 in 2011, and he proved to once again be one of the top defensive playmakers in college football. In his third year as the starter, everything will work around him in the middle.

Key player to a successful season: Junior WR Willie McNeal. The quarterback situation will work itself out, and it should eventually thrive with the coaching staff that's in place, but the wide receivers have to be more dangerous. Jack Doyle, a tight end, led the team in receiving, and now he's gone making the steady McNeal the best returning target. While he was good, he needs to be great as a No. 1 target to work the passing game around.

The season will be a success if … the Hilltoppers flirt with double digit wins to go along with a Sun Belt title. The negatives aren't that bad and the positives are tremendous. There isn't a team on the schedule they can't beat, and while they probably won't get by Kentucky or Tennessee, they should be more than talented enough and well coached enough to get by at least nine out of the final ten games on the way to a bowl.

Key game: Oct. 16 vs. Louisiana. This should be the tone-setter for the rest of the Sun Belt season. The road trip to ULM will be a big conference test, but with Troy and Arkansas State coming to Bowling Green, the date with the Ragin' Cajuns could be the catalyst for a title. With a week off to prepare, and with Troy to follow, beating ULL after last year's tough loss would be huge.

2012 Fun Stats:
- Time of Possession: WKU 32:18 – Opponents 27:42
- Kickoff Return Average: WKU 24.6 yards – Opponents 22.8 yards
- Average Rushing Yards Per Game: WKU 181.7 – Opponents 136.8

- 2013 WKU Preview | 2013 WKU Offense
- 2013 WKU Defense | 2013 WKU Depth Chart