Willie Taggart hopes Kentucky will see a noticeable difference in Western Kentucky on Thursday compared to last year, when the Wildcats blitzed the Hilltoppers 63-28.
“Our guys got bigger and stronger and faster, and now it’s time to go on the football field and do something. The thing I want Kentucky to say after the game is that this team was totally different than what they played the year before,” the Western Kentucky coach said.
WKU did break a 26-game losing streak last year, but still finished just 2-10 and was last in the Sun Belt Conference standings. Taggart has brought in a new defensive coordinator, new offensive coordinator and two new position coaches in hopes of moving the program forward.
However, what could help Western more than anything is the return of highly-touted running back Bobby Rainey — he had 187 of 1,649 rushing yards against Kentucky last season — along with quarterback Kawaun Jakes — he was 140 for 291 for 1,680 yards passing and 10 touchdowns in 2010.
“Kawaun looks great. I felt good about Kawaun after the spring game. He looked amazing. He’s maturing, and he is understanding what his role is and what he has to do to make this team better,” Rainey said.
Rainey led the nation in rushing attempts in 2010 with 340 and averaged 137.42 yards per game. He went for 100 or more yards in Western’s last five game. He likes the idea of Thursday night’s game in Nashville, Tenn., being on ESPNU, one of two ESPN games played at that time.
“All the attention is on us,” Rainey said. “Who wouldn’t want to show up and be that guy? All eyes on us. If we beat them, we’re good. It’s a rivalry, and to have it televised in front of a nice crowd on a nice field, is huge. Everybody is excited about the whole thing — television, (Tennessee)¿Titans’ stadium, big crowd. It’s all exciting.”
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips still remembers Rainey wrecking his defense last season, and Rainey is on the Doak Walker, Maxwell and Paul Hornung watch lists going into the season.
“He's a great back. He makes people miss. He runs through tackles. He knows how to run around you. He can run over you. That's a huge challenge,” Phillips said.
Taggart, a former WKU quarterback and assistant who is starting his second season as head coach, is apprehensive against Kentucky, which returns 10 defensive starters and six offensive starters off last year’s 6-7 BBVA Compass Bowl team.
“They are good (on defense). They’re fast. They are big and athletic, which you anticipate with them being an SEC team. They changed it up, so I think what we will see will be a little different than what we saw last year. I expect to see a lot of speed,” Taggart said.
He says there is a bit of an unknown factor in UK’s offense after the departure of 2010 stars Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke,¿Mike Hartline and Chris Matthews. The defense also has some intrigue with the addition of Rick Minter, a more aggressive coach than previous coordinator Steve Brown, as coordinator.
“You’d like to know going in, but like I tell our football players, if we just do what we do and understand what we do and block our routes, we can block anything they show us. Our guys have got to understand that. Just be really good at what you do and be sound and disciplined in what you do, and it will get there.”
Phillips remains convinced that junior quarterback Morgan Newton is not an unknown and will do fine filling Hartline’s shoes. He started eight games in 2009 as a true freshman when Hartline was hurt and started the bowl game last season after Hartline was suspended.
Phillips says he wants Newton to “get the ball in the end zone and win games,” because that’s what quarterbacks are basically judged on.
“If you're going to judge Morgan, he's won games around here as a starter. People talk about managing the game. I want a quarterback that can manage the game. I want a quarterback that can help us win games also. I think Morgan is ready for that, also,” Phillips said.
“You don't recognize the guy that we had in the bowl game. I mean, he's a lot different than what we saw in the bowl game. He's much improved. A lot of it has to do with his confidence. A lot of it has to do with getting reps and understanding of schemes better, understanding our protection.
“But let me tell you this, when he played as a true freshman, he knew nothing. I mean, he knew nothing. He didn't know how to protect himself with protections. We had to be as simple as we possibly could be. Like I say, that's the process of our quarterbacks. It takes a little bit of time. Now he has it. He's fixing protections. He's checking plays. He's doing all the things that the good quarterbacks we've had here did.”
Phillips is still waiting to see exactly who will emerge to replace Locke, UK’s top rusher last season, and his big-play capability. Sophomore Raymond Sanders will start Thursday, with true freshman Josh Clemons No. 2 on the depth chart.
“I really like the running backs. Do we have a difference-maker? I'm not sure of that yet,” Phillips said. “I think a couple young guys are really talented. I'm waiting to see if there's a difference-maker in the group, a difference-maker that can hold up for 12 games, a difference-maker that can go the distance like we had last year.”
Phillips plans to use several running backs, because the top five have all shown flashes he likes.
“There's not a lot of separation amongst them, so we got to try to find some separation in the games now,” he said.