After watching from afar as his alma mater went 0-12 in its first season as a Football Bowl Series competitor in 2009, first-year head coach Willie Taggart has reenergized the program since taking the reins last November. That swell of excitement around Bowling Green, Ky., is needed as the task ahead is large. Since 2008, Taggart's new program has lost 20 consecutive games and has yet to win as a member of the FBS.
High on the new head coach's to-do list this spring was finding ways to maximize talent. Taggart, who was running backs coach at Stanford while helping Toby Gerhardt to a Heisman Trophy finalist season last year, quickly realized that his team's goals will be more easily reached if he can find more ways to utilize junior running back Bobby Rainey.
"We have a chance to do a lot of different things with Bobby. He's athletic enough, and we wouldn't do our team any good if we didn't find ways to get the ball in his hands," Taggart told the student newspaper in mid-August.
The diminutive Rainey-who stands just 5-7 and weighs 196 pounds-used his quick feet and shiftiness to set school records for all-purpose yards (2,101) and kickoff return yards (1,050) as a sophomore. Despite having only four games with a long run over 30 yards, he averaged 6.5 yards per rush with 939 yards on just 144 carries. More instinctive than explosive, Rainey was named to the preseason watch list for this year's inaugural Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation's most versatile player.
Who would be handing off to the creative runner was not as clear entering fall camp.
A standout college quarterback and a teammate of former Cornhuskers Tommie Frazier and Shevin Wiggins in little league and high school, Taggart wanted an open competition for the position after returning starter Kawaun Jakes missed extended time in spring ball with an ankle injury suffered during a pickup basketball game. Jakes already had the stats after passing for 1,516 yards, completing 60 percent of his passes and rushing for another 355 yards in 2009.
Junior college transfer Matt Pelesasa (1,621 passing yards, 595 rushing yards, 30 combined TDs at College of San Mateo in 2009) did his part to push Jakes during camp despite battling a sore throwing arm. In the end, Taggart settled on Jakes as the first-game starter on Aug. 23.
Getting Rainey and Jakes off to a good start in the season opener will be a priority of the offensive line. Possibly the Hilltoppers' most experienced unit, the O-line returns three full-time starters in tackles Preston King and Wes Jeffries and guard Mychal Patterson. Last year, the line helped three WKU backs average better than 5.0 yards per carry (min. 40 carries) as the team rushed for more than 173 yards per game.
In the passing game, the biggest beneficiaries of Taggart's offensive game plan could be the receiving corps. Despite losing two of its top three receiving yardage leaders from a year ago, Western Kentucky returns its top tight end in Jack Doyle and senior wide receiver Quinterrance Cooper.
The pair combined for 57 receptions last year, with Cooper posting at least 20 catches each of the past three seasons. Sophomore Marcus Vasquez is also slated to start opposite Cooper after catching 19 balls for 176 yards and two scores last year.