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From the Bird’s Nest: WKU – Movin’ on Up

(This is the eighth in a series previewing Louisiana’s 2011 football opponents.  Today: Western Kentucky

WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS

Location:  Bowling Green Ky.

Stadium:  Houchens Industries L. T. Smith Stadium (22,113)

2010 Record: 2-10 (2-6 SBC)

Coach:  Willie Taggart

Record: 2-10 (second season)

Last meeting with Louisiana:  2010  WKU 54, Louisiana 21

When Willie Taggart left Stanford to become Western Kentucky’s football coach, he knew he had a job ahead of him.

The Hilltoppers were coming off a winless season as they spent their first season in the Sun Belt Conference after making the transition from the FCS.  And, Taggart knew what he was facing, not only trying to build the Hilltoppers’ program, but also getting the fan base energized at what is known as a basketball school.

Taggart knew because his number was hanging at Houchens Industries-L. T. Smith Stadium, only one of two jerseys ever retired by the Hilltoppers.

And, for Taggart, that made it personal.

WKU finally snapped a 26 game losing streak when they hammered Louisiana at the Cajuns’ homecoming last year, 54-21.  They followed that up three weeks later with an overtime win against Arkansas State.  Of the Toppers’ six losses in the Sun Belt, four were by a touchdown or less, including two one-point setbacks.  And, with fifteen starters returning, this could be the year where WKU turns close losses into some wins.

For the Hilltoppers, it’s going to start at quarterback.  Redshirt junior Kawaun Jakes prevailed in the spring to keep his job as the starter.  Jakes’ sophomore season was marred by inconsistency.  He completed just over 50 percent of his throws.  But, after having a year to adjust Taggart’s west coast offense, the coaching staff believes that Jakes will be more comfortable in 2011.  If the spring is any indication, they’re  right.  Jakes completed 10-16 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns while earning spring MVP honors.

There’s no question WKU can run the football.  Bobby Rainey (5-8, 205) led the FBS with 340 carries and was third nationally at 137 yards per game.  Rainey ran for at least 150 yards seven times.  While keeping Rainey healthy will be crucial, sophomore Keshawn Simpson will get some carries this season.  Simpson (6-0, 235) can give the Toppers a change of pace.

Despite missing the final three games of the season with a broken collarbone, Marquez Vasquez was WKU’s leading receiver a year ago.  He should be full speed for the opener this year. After Vasquez, however, there isn’t much experience.  WKU suffered a big blow when sophomore Willie McNeal, who led the Toppers in receiving yards and also their leading kick returner injured his knee in the spring and will miss the season.  With very little proven talent behind Vasquez, tight end Jack Doyle will be even more valuable.  Doyle missed five games because of a neck injury last season but is good to go.

On the offensive line, starters at left tackle, center and right guard return.  Depth will come from some talented redshirt freshmen who were part of Taggart’s first recruiting class.  WKU has had two recruiting classes in a row rated at the top of the league.

Acadiana native Lance Guidry is the new defensive coordinator after coming over from Miami (OH).  And Guidry’s biggest challenge will be to get more production out of a defensive line that recorded only eleven sacks last season.  Quanterus Smith had four of the sacks and he returns at one end.  Senior Jared Clendenin returns on the other side.  Nose tackle Jamarcus Allen, who returned a fumble for a touchdown at Cajun Field last year, is back at nose tackle.

Another challenge facing the WKU defense will be replacing three starters at linebacker.  Sophomore Xavius Boyd started some games at the strong side and he’s the most experienced returnee.    Overall there’s not a lot of returning experience and not much quality depth.

But WKU should shine in the secondary.  Both Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright started at the corners as natural freshmen and they’re only going to get better.  Kareem Peterson won the job at free safety in the spring and sophomore Kiante Young is back after starting the last six games at strong safety.

The kicking game is a huge question mark  Although both the kicker and punter return, both were inconsistent a year ago.  WKU also struggled covering kicks last season.  And, with McNeal’s injury, questions abound in the return game as well.

The Hilltoppers host the two teams they beat last season, Arkansas State and Louisiana.  They also get the two favorites, FIU and Troy, at home.  The out of conference schedule does the Toppers no favors with Navy, LSU and Kentucky among their four out of league contests.

Outlook:  Western Kentucky has to get more consistent quarterback play this season.  If Jakes has matured in Taggart’s offense, WKU will score points, especially with Rainey in the backfield.  There are a lot of question marks because of inexperience at linebacker on defense.  But there’s a lot of young talent on this football team and WKU was oh, so close in several of their losses.  Every year there’s a team that has the potential for surprise.  For me, this year, that team is WKU.

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