By: Braden Gall | 5/3/11, 1:00 AM EDT
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You can read the entire Western Kentucky preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 National College Football magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
#101 Western Kentucky
Sun Belt PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Willie Taggart, 9-15 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Willie Taggart | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lance Guidry
Western Kentucky led the nation in offensive time of possession last season. Then again, that was easy to do when you could run the nation’s second-leading rusher, Bobby Rainey, for the most attempts of any back in the country for a second consecutive season.
Now, Rainey, the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year, is gone. That puts the onus to run the West Coast offense on senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes, a third-year starter who seemed to finally get it in the second half of last season when he led the Hilltoppers to seven wins in their last eight games. His emerging consistency this season will be key.
The Hilltoppers will be more balanced offensively. Senior Jack Doyle, an effective pass-blocker who also led WKU in receptions last season, leads a solid quartet of tight ends. Sophomore receiver Willie McNeal sat out last season with a knee injury after playing well as a freshman and should emerge as a key target. He had 26 catches for 360 yards in 2010.
Juniors Antonio Andrews and Keshawn Simpson, who combined for 47 carries, will battle for the right to replace Rainey as the No. 1 running back.
Four of five starters return to the offensive line, including bell cow Adam Smith at right guard. The senior was second-team All-Sun Belt last year. Depth up front, though, remains a concern.
The Hilltopper defense, a traditional 4-3, has to be considered the strength of the team. The front seven is as big and physical and experienced as it has been during Western’s young FBS era.
Junior middle linebacker Andrew Jackson is a leading candidate for Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year after leading the team and finishing third in the league in tackles, with 109. He is again flanked at strong and weak linebacker by the Boyd brothers, Bar’ee and Xavius, respectively.
Up front, there is quantity and quality, led by senior end Quanterus Smith, a second-team All-Sun Belt pick last season. Despite being a bit on the slight side at 6'2" and 228 pounds, redshirt freshman Gavin Rocker is a fleet pass-rusher from the other end spot who can eluder larger blockers. At a mobile 290 pounds, third-year starter Jamarcus Allen is a load in the middle at nose guard.
Opposing teams soon learned to kick the ball away from John Evans, who emerged as a freshman to finish second in the nation in kickoff return average. And there is the possibility of a dual return threat with McNeal, a freshman All-American as a kickoff returner in 2010. Third-year punter Hendrix Brakefield is solid, averaging 41.6 yards per attempt last season. Sophomore placekicker Jesse Roy needs to provide consistency after hitting just 2-of-6 on field goals last season.
Third-year coach Willie Taggart received a four-year contract extension after guiding WKU to the best turnaround in Sun Belt history. Yet, the sting remains of being snubbed for a bowl invitation despite posting a 7–5 record that included a 7–1 mark in the Sun Belt. Taggart has used that snub to motivate his team in the offseason.
The Hilltoppers can no longer sneak up on the rest of the league. Last season proved that WKU is now a program that can compete in the improving Sun Belt. Contending with Rainey no longer around will be tough, but the Hilltoppers should still be one of the better teams in the league.