Another strong point for the Western Kentucky football team going into the spring is its secondary.
The Hilltoppers return seven key cogs of the defensive backfield to a team that ranked 34th in pass defense (209.77 yards per game) last season.
"I've been happy with our back end," first-year WKU coach Bobby Petrino said Friday. "Our secondary is doing a nice job, we got a lot of experience back there, guys that know what it's like, guys that have been able to pick up the technique real well."
In all, the returning Hilltoppers in the secondary combined for 329 tackles in 2012, accounting for 36.7 percent of the team's total stops.
That returning group also collected 12 of the 13 interceptions WKU made last year.
"As far as the secondary, I think we have a lot of kids that played a lot of football, it sure shows," WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. "So far, so good."
Jonathan Dowling, the team's most notable playmaker for his six interceptions (tied for third most in the FBS in 2012), gambling on coverage and big-time hits is back for his junior season at free safety.
He'll be flanked by Kiante Young, a senior at the strong safety spot who was second on the team in tackles last year with 83.
Young, from Gainesville, Ga., has already shown this spring to be one of the defense's foremost vocal leaders.
"It's the same type of plays, it's just more tempo, just a whole lot faster," Young said. "We're learning a whole lot more and just getting smarter in the secondary. There's a lot of confidence. It's just once we learn it, then we can actually go out and do what we know how to do. We're just still in the learning curve. Just getting better."
At cornerback, Tyree Robinson (52 tackles), Cam Thomas (43 tackles), Brett Harrington (35 tackles) and Arius Wright (35 tackles) are all back. Thomas, Harrington and Wright all also recorded at least one interception.
Only Florida Atlantic – who will play in Conference USA this fall – defended the pass better than WKU in 2012 among Sun Belt Conference teams.
"We've got a lot of work to do," WKU secondary coach Mike Cassity added. "Still learning faces and names. Been impressed with the enthusiasm, the intensity – we got a long way to go, but again, we're five days into spring practice and (Saturday) we'll be a big evaluation when we get a scrimmage opportunity."
Petrino will conduct practice as normal today – for half the time, anyway.
During the second part of the the session, the team will scrimmage each other and Petrino said he'll be looking to see if his players can take what they've learned and translate it into a game-like setting.
"I'm going to really be looking to see if there's players that think they're saving themselves for the scrimmage – because that's exactly what I don't want," he said. "Then when we get to the scrimmage part of it, that's the testing. That's where we find out how much our players have carried over. Are they going to be take over the technique from the drills into the game atmosphere? It'll be fun. It'll be fun to see where we're at."
Tickets for the Hilltoppers' season-opener on sale
Tickets for the 2013 football season opener between WKU and Kentucky went on sale Friday at the WKU ticket office.
WKU and Kentucky will kick off Aug. 31 at LP Field in Nashville.
Ticket prices for the game are $67 for club level, $47 for lower level sideline, $32 for upper sideline and $22 for upper corner. General public tickets may be ordered online at WKUSports.com or by calling 1-800-5-BIG RED or 270-745-5222. All seats will be assigned in early July, based on HAF priority rank. Season tickets are also on sale now for the 2013 WKU football season.
Parking passes for this game may be ordered through Ticketmaster.com or through the WKU ticket office. The first 4,000 WKU students with a valid ID will receive a free ticket to the game. After 4,000 student tickets are sold, tickets will be $13.