WKU has high expectations for 2011 despite last year's 2-10 season, the first under former WKU star Willie Taggart. Despite suffering a few growing pains, the Toppers seemed upbeat and ready to put in the work to achieve their ultimate goal: win the school's first ever Sun Belt Conference football championship.
At today's annual football media day, it began what the players were wearing off the field: blue collared shirts.
"I wanted our guys to get back to having that blue collar mentality," Taggart said. "I thought it was fitting for our university because that's what we have always been is a blue collar university and a blue collar football team."
Senior defensive lineman Jared Clendenin brought a similar mentality to the table in his remarks.
"We should wear [the shirt] everyday because we are working every day, but not having the shirt on doesn't mean we aren't working," he said.
When it comes to hard work, no one worked harder than running back Bobby Rainey, who finds himself at the forefront after finishing third in the FBS in rushing last season. Rainey seemed unfazed by all the hype and focused on the team success.
"I don't get into all that," he said. "The longer we stay focused and continue to do what we do, everything will handle itself."
Taggart shared the same idea as Rainey when he added "if Bobby be Bobby he's going to do a lot for us."
First year Offensive Coordinator Zach Azzanni added to the pressures facing Rainey to duplicate his success from last season. He knows it won't be easy.
"We're not going to sneak up on anybody this year by running the ball with Bobby Rainey," Azzanni said. "We've got to take some of the pressure off of him."
One way Azzanni can alleviate the pressure on Rainey is to improve junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes, who is coming off a frustrating 2010 campaign. Last season, he completed just over fifty-one percent of his passes and faced the blunt of the team's criticism.
"I'm proud of Kawaun thus far," Azzanni said. "To go through two different offenses, two different head coaches, two different coordinators, that's tough on a kid especially a quarterback."
Taggart also seemed confident in his quarterback.
"He's putting in the work now," Taggart said. "He's studying film constantly. When we're in meetings, he's writing, taking notes, and that's good to see."
As the team prepares for its Sept. 1 showdown with Kentucky, there are still many positions with question marks. On defense the Toppers' biggest question is the linebackers.
"It's still a battle," said first year defensive coordinator Lance Guidry. "Everyday we are competing for a job. Whoever practices the best will be the starter."
One area that is not a question is the defensive line, which returns all four starters from last season. The line will be anchored by Clendenin who, in the words of Guidry, is "the blue collar guy of anybody on our defense."
On the offensive side, the health of sophomore receiver Courtney Dalcourt is also a big question. Taggart and Azzanni both believe that if Dalcourt can recover physically and mentally, he will be a big part of this team's success.
The offense could be without sophomore wideout Willie McNeal whose knee injury might sideline him for the entire season. Taggart was optimistic that McNeal would return at some point this season.
"Willie is ahead of schedule on his rehab, and if [he's] 100% he can go, we will play him."
The play of senior kicker Casey Tinius is also a big question mark this year as he struggled greatly in 2010. Despite this drop off, Taggart said he knows how important this aspect of the kicking game is.
"If we can be much better on our field goal team, we'll win a lot of ball games," he said.
Despite the questions on the offensive side of the ball, the Toppers will embody their blue collar attitude.
"We don't need to go out there and be superstars every single play," Azzanni said. "We need to manage the game, and play the game."
As WKU rapidly approaches its opening game under the lights in Nashville against Kentucky, their blue collar attitude has made itself clear. If the Toppers are going to beat Kentucky in front of a national audience, it will be through hard work, and it will bring a lot of good things to the campus of Western Kentucky University. Rainey said it best.
"All eyes are on us," he said. "If we beat UK, we'll be good!"