A New Era Begins: WKU Football Preview

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"Ushering in the (insert name here) era" is a catchy phrase used by a lot of college programs to build excitement over a new head coaching hire. For Western Kentucky, the name inserted into the phrase is Bobby Petrino - and while many around these parts don't expect the new era to last a long time, those same fans should chill and revel in the fact that one of the best college football coaches in the country will be in charge of the Hilltoppers for the 2013 season at least, and quite possibly beyond, maybe.
It could potentially be a very big year for Western Kentucky - yes, the Petrino hire is a major factor for the enthusiasm, but the plethora of overall talent left behind by Willie Taggart and the previous coaching staff is plentiful. The simple truth is Taggart took this program from shipwrecked (0-12 in 2009) to sailing the seas of success by posting back-to-back seven win seasons and a bowl appearance last year.
Not too shabby, and Taggart left this program bubbling with talent, athleticism, and skilled football players that have tasted the jubilation of success. Indeed, it's a nice, cozy situation that Petrino has found himself in - even if it becomes a stepping-stone job to pave his way to another BCS level program. Regardless, Petrino is hungry to prove himself to everyone in college football that he is a program builder, a program changer, and the "It Factor" that can lead a team to the ultimate goal of winning a national championship.
The proper pieces are in place for Petrino and the Hilltoppers to win a Sun Belt Conference championship, reach the double-digit win plateau, and take WKU football to new heights of success.
Offensive Questions:
The biggest question mark going into spring practice was who would replace veteran Kawaun Jakes at quarterback? We ended up getting our answer mid-way through spring practice. The answer is Brandon Doughty, who emerged as the front-runner and clear-cut starter when the dust settled for summer break. While Doughty remains the favorite going into fall camp, expect him to get some competition from incoming JUCO transfer Nelson Fishback and true freshman Todd Porter - both have strong arms and the ability to break loose on the ground when the pocket breaks down.
Yes, it's true. The wide receivers weren't featured much under Willie Taggart's West Coast offensive approach that focused on establishing long drives via the running attack and short passes to keep the chains moving and dominate time of possession. Sure, it wasn't the best offensive system to be in for a playmaking receiver. There was a huge gap in receptions by wide receivers last year: Willie McNeal led the way with 43, but the next valid wide receiver on the stats list was Rico Brown, who only hauled in 13 passes.
McNeal will undoubtedly be the playmaker this season for the wide receiver corps, with Rico Brown providing veteran leadership. However, the Hilltoppers are thin at the position after the departures of Boe Brand and Neil Wilson. Petrino is going to rely heavily on the services of junior college transfer Lonnie Turner, along with incoming true freshmen like Aaron Jackson, Cam Lewis, and Taywan Taylor.
Offensive Answers:
The offensive line will once again be the backbone of the offense with the return of senior veterans Sean Conway, Luis Polanco, and Ed Hazelett. They will lead a group that will also feature an experienced junior in Cameron Clemmons, an up-and-coming sophomore in Forrest Lamp, and an infusion of junior college transfers in John Delaney and Connor Popeck. Experience in the trenches will be a tremendous asset for Bobby Petrino and offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm as they instill their new pro-style, spread-'em-out attack with the O-line blessing the running backs with lanes as wide as an LAX runway.
Antonio Andrews will have the ball in his hands as much as humanly possible, the all-purpose machine returns to run amuck on any and all opposing defenses. You think Kentucky will be looking for that reverse pass again this year? More than likely. Andrews will be the catalyst of the offense, but he also has senior bulldozer Keshawn Simpson and sophomore ground-and-pounder Leon Allen serving as experienced and talented backups. The Hilltoppers averaged 387 yards of offense per game last season, it's safe to say that average will increase with Petrino and Brohm mixing up big-play ingredients in the offensive laboratory.
Defensive Questions:
Perhaps the weakest link position-wise for Western Kentucky going into the 2013 season is the defensive line with all starters from last season gone, including efficient gap-fillers like Jamarcus Allen and sackmaster extraordinaire Quanterus Smith coming off the edge. Now, it's not like the cupboard is completely empty along the D-line, there is talent and experience returning with the likes of Calvin Washington, Gavin Rocker, and Bryan Shorter to go along with junior college transfers Raphael Cox and Maurice Bennett for some much added depth.
Speaking of depth, don't be surprised to see incoming freshmen like Demarcus Glover and Kalvin Robinson receive significant playing time. Both have the size and talent to come in and make an immediate impact. The defensive front will need to improve their pass rush, which tailspinned during the final five games last season by forgetting to generate pressure on the quarterback (and collecting only 3 sacks). The Hilltoppers went 1-4 during the homestretch of 2012, not something they hope to repeat in 2013.
Defensive Answers:
The back seven (linebackers and secondary) could be the best in the Sun Belt with the return of Andrew Jackson, who will hold down linebacking duties alongside running mates Xavius and Ba'ree Boyd. Jackson is coming off a season where he collected 122 tackles, including 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
The secondary is talent-loaded with returning starters and veteran players that include the likes of Tyree Robinson, Arius Wright, Cam Thomas, Darryl Gilchrist and Vince Williams, along with ball-hawking free safety Jonathan Dowling and the gritty, hard-nosed strong safety Kiante Young.
Expect both groups to be tested early in the season as the defensive line works to form unity.
Special Teams:
Garrett Schwettman stepped into the role of place kicker early last season and performed very well, going 10-13 overall that included a long of 42-yards. He progressively gained more confidence in his long range attempts as the season went along. Back for his senior season is all-world punter Hendrix Brakefield, who will once again look to pin opponents deep and give the Hilltoppers ultimate field position advantage.
Schedule Outlook:
While it's possible that the Hilltoppers could go 2-0 in the SEC East to start the season against Kentucky and Tennessee, a more feasible outlook is that they end up splitting the first two games (1-1 in the SEC East ain't bad) before road tripping to South Alabama to open Sun Belt play. The Hilltoppers have a nice stretch from September 21st into November where they only play one road game - an October 3rd revenge showdown at Louisiana-Monroe. Aside from that, the Hilltoppers play Sun Belt big dawgs Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy, and Arkansas State all at home. Bye weeks are worked in before the hotly contested Tuesday night showcase against the Ragin' Cajuns under the lights of Houchens-Smith Stadium (brought to you by ESPN or ESPN2 by the way) and at the tail end of a three-game road stretch at Texas State in late November. That, my friends, is proper rest placement.
So…sit back, relax, and grab some popcorn - "Showtime" officially kicks off on August 31st.