It was a rough go for WKU quarterbacks last fall.
Between since graduated Brandon Smith and sophomore Kawaun Jakes, the two were sacked 39 times. Part of that was due to an offensive line that had injuries, but it also had a lot to do with the lack of any threats at wide receiver.
Since graduated Jake Gaebler had 43 catches for 494 yards, while just behind him was sophomore tight end Jack Doyle with 37 catches for 365 yards. After that, there was a steep drop-off to the next in line, senior Quinterrance Cooper with 20 catches for 151 yards.
This was obviously a position that needed to show up more this season after being devoid of much production.
Part of the answer has come from freshman Willie McNeal, who sat out the fall as a grayshirt, but claimed offensive MVP of the spring game. McNeal has picked up where he left off in fall camp. He's also brought some much needed swagger.
"The kid loves to play, the kid don't ever stop talking, he's always talking," coach Willie Taggart said. "He's the littlest guy out there, but he talks like he's the biggest guy out there all the time. He talks to the linebackers and D-line. They all try to get him too when he comes in that area. He's a playmaker, he likes having fun and he always wants the ball, which I love."
McNeal might have been a pleasant surprise to nearly everyone in the spring except himself. But there was still plenty to prove, something he hasn't forgotten.
"Every day, I try to play as if I've got something to prove," McNeal said. "At the same time, because I sat out so long, I was a little rusty, so I felt I still had something to prove."
The good thing for McNeal is that while he'll shoulder a good portion of the receiving load, he has some help as well. Sophomore wide receiver Dexter Haynes didn't get into the stat sheet last season, but could get some production after a solid fall camp thus far. He still faces a few challenges though.
"He's showing signs of what he can be, but he's just gotta be consistent," Taggart said. "He had a really good practice yesterday morning, then came out in the afternoon and it wasn't so good and then he'll come back and make a play for you. He's just gotta be consistent. He's talented. He's got a chance to really help us."
Taggart said he's also liked sophomore Marcus Vasquez and Cooper, who have both showed positive signs.
While WKU could easily play a handful of true freshmen, one could be at wideout. Donald Campbell has continued to impress and Taggart has steadily brought his name up throughout camp.
"If he continues to come along and the offense doesn't get to big for him, there's no doubt about it, he's a kid who can play football," Taggart said. "I'm not thinking about redshirting anybody. If those guys keep coming, which they are every day, they're getting better."
Helping all the receivers has been the one on ones with the secondary, another group looking to prove itself after a disappointing 2009.
"We've got a lot of young guys in the defensive back group and they've been working their butts off struggling against those receivers," junior safety Mark Santoro said. "The receivers get them here and there then we come back. It's been a little rollercoaster, but it's been a lot of fun to watch."
While any production worth noting from the wide receivers will be a boost from last year, the biggest threat will no doubt be McNeal. With blazing speed, he'll be counted on by getting the ball in a number of ways, such as in the slot, out wide and on reverses.
"I see myself fitting good," he said. "I think the offense will be nice overall, from the offensive line, the running back, for everybody. I think everybody will have an opportunity to be a playmaker from the pro-style offense we run."
But it doesn't matter to McNeal how he gets the ball, just that he gets it with a chance to produce. And that's all WKU can ask for.
"Wherever I can be to get the ball in my hands, I feel good," he said.
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