Spring football 25: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Texas Tech

What happened in 2012
Western Kentucky didn’t exactly make waves nationally with its 7-6 season, but it did manage just its third winning season – first back-to-back winning seasons – in its six years as a member of the FBS.

The effort earned coach Willie Taggart a new job at South Florida and opened the door for one of the nation’s most interesting hires in Bobby Petrino. Petrino was fired as the head coach at Arkansas prior to the 2012 season following the discovery (and subsequent cover-up) of an inappropriate relationship between him and a subordinate employee. After less than a year off, Western Kentucky decided to take a flyer on Petrino.

What makes them interesting in 2013
Everyone knows that Petrino is using his new job at Western Kentucky to get back into one of the major conferences, but that should be OK with the Hilltoppers who will not only see an increase in fan support thanks to this move, but should also see better recruiting prospects and, best of all, more winning.

Taggart didn’t leave the cupboard bare, though there will be some work to do on the offensive and defensive lines as well as finding a new starting quarterback.

All eyes will be on Petrino, who has done well with rebuilding projects before.

What needs to happen this spring
Petrino and his staff come in with a new philosophy on both sides of the ball. Western Kentucky was a run-based team under Taggart. While the running backs, led by Antonio Andrews, who had 304 carries for 1,728 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, will still be a focus, Petrino hopes to find a quarterback who can spread the ball around as well. That means a passing offense that accounted for a little more than 205 yards per game last season, will be a bigger part of the equation.

Tight end Jack Doyle, who led the Hilltoppers in receiving last year, is gone, but second-leading receiver Willie McNeal returns. Unfortunately, Andrews was the third leading receiver, so Petrino will have some work identifying new and consistent targets.

But in order to make the passing game relevant, the Hilltoppers will have to find a new quarterback with the departure of star Kawaun Jakes. Returners Brandon Doughty and James Mauro will battle transfer DeMarcus Smith. Mauro has the most experience of the three, playing sparingly behind Jakes. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 172 yards, two touchdowns and a score last season. Doughty completed one pass for seven yards. Since Petrino has traditionally leaned toward pro-style quarterbacks, the one with the best arm and accuracy will win.

The offensive line also has to replace right guard Adam Smith and right tackle Seth White.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line is the biggest concern. The Hilltoppers lose defensive end Cole Tischer and defensive tackles Jamarcus Allen and Rammell Lewis, and the pool wasn’t deep with a lot of talent. Luckily, WKU does return two of its best linebackers and the entire secondary, which ranked 34th nationally in pass defense and 26th in pass efficiency.

Game changers
Defensive back Jonathan Dowling had a breakout season last year after grabbing a team-high six interceptions and making 68 tackles. The Florida transfer was named All-Sun Belt last season and should be one of the stars in the secondary again this season.

On the offensive side, it’s hard not to look at Andrews and not marvel at his workload. He’s the type of back that should fit nicely in Petrino’s system and the new coach has already been impressed through the first few practices. As long as he’s on the field, it should make the transition of the new quarterbacks a lot easier.

Wild cards
Smith’s road to the quarterbacking ranks at WKU has been a tumultuous one. He was originally committed to Louisville, but backed off that commitment after Teddy Bridgewater also committed. He ended up signing with Central Florida, but never played a down because the NCAA declared him academically ineligible. Now, two years after he officially signed with the Knights, Smith will try to impress Petrino and his staff.

Smith had the high school numbers to make waves, but can that translate to college, especially after two years off?

Key games
Aug. 31 Kentucky (in Nashville)
Sept. 7 at Tennessee
Oct. 3 at Louisiana-Monroe
Oct. 15 Louisiana-Lafayette
Oct. 26 Troy
Nov 30 Arkansas State

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina , Baylor, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Clemson, West Virginia, Missouri , Tulsa, Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Louisville, Northern Illinois, USC, Florida State, Kansas State.

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