Western Kentucky is loaded at the running back position this season.
The Hilltoppers return 95.8 percent of their rushing yards from a season ago, losing just 99 of the 2,362 yards accumulated in 2012.
The nation’s 45th best rushing attack last year (181.69 yards per game) probably won’t put up the same numbers this season in new coach Bobby Petrino’s multiple offense. But the Tops have a multitude of weapons in the backfield to scorch opponents in a multitude of ways.
“I’m excited about the group of guys that I have,” WKU running backs coach Kolby Smith said. “They’re all working hard, challenging each other, competing with each other to do the best.”
Smith, a former running back at Louisville who played four seasons in the NFL, has been handed a group which prominently features senior Antonio Andrews.
Andrews finished last season with 3,161 all-purpose yards, 1,728 of those coming on 304 carries out of the backfield. The Fort Campbell High School product was not available for comment Thursday after leaving practice early for class, but Smith spoke about the veteran’s role in the new system.
“He’s a great guy,” Smith said. “He’s doing a great job of leading the group around here. He’s doing all the little things that we’re asking him to do so that we can be a better team. I believe it’ll help him a lot. This offense is a pro-style offense. The things and the responsibilities that are placed on the running back will help him adapt to the next level quickly.
“I know when I was in the NFL, it allowed me to adapt quickly and respond quickly.”
While Andrews gets all the notoriety, WKU also returns senior Keshawn Simpson (20 carries, 101 yards), sophomore Leon Allen (56 carries, 317 yards), redshirt sophomore Marquis Sumler (16 carries, 59 yards) and fullbacks Kadeem Jones (17 carries, 84 yards) and Nick Baisch (two carries, three yards).
They’ll also get the full services of redshirt freshmen Travis Elliot (Ryle High School, 4,745 career yards in three seasons) and Anthony Wales (Central High School in Louisville, 8,213 career yards).
“I just feel like everybody is going to have their part in the game and people are just going to go out there and play hard,” the speedy Wales said. “Whoever starts, we’re all great running backs. I know it’s going to be a good battle, but we’re all going to help the team in different ways.”
One thing the WKU backs will have to adjust to is more involvement in the passing game under Petrino – both by catching balls out of the backfield and pass protection.
The returning running backs not named Andrews combined to catch 17 passes for 181 yards. Andrews had 37 receptions for 432 yards and three scores.
“The only thing that feels like is different is the blocking technique,” Simpson said of the adjustment. “The way we got to pick up linebackers and defensive ends, safeties. That’s a little bit different than the way we did in past years.”
For Smith, who played under Petrino from 2003-06, knowing the system and the coach is a valuable commodity for the running back position.
He rushed for more than 1,800 yards at Louisville, then played for the Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos.
“I like working under him,” Simpson said. “He’s a player’s coach. He knows what he’s talking about and been in the same position we’ve been in. I look up to him and listen to everything he says.”
Petrino, WKU unveil new helmet look
This morning at the National Corvette Museum, Petrino and Western Kentucky unveiled a new-look helmet for the 2013 season at a the Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce’s coffee hour.
The helmet is a metallic, reflective chrome with a dark red stripe down the middle and the program’s red towel logo on each side. Petrino showed off the new helmet himself, then spoke to the crowd for about 30 minutes before taking questions from those in attendance.
The Hilltoppers will resume spring practice at 4 p.m. today.