Not only is Western Kentucky looking for someone to consistently throw the ball this season, first-year WKU coach Bobby Petrino also needs some young men to catch it.
The transition from Willie Taggart’s run-heavy attack to Petrino’s balanced offense means WKU will be relying on more than one target at the wide receiver position. Those potential targets, however, have no experience with their new, high-octane system.
At Arkansas in 2011, Petrino’s wide receivers – not including tight ends or backs – made 201 catches for 2,844 yards. Last year, eight WKU wide receivers made 90 grabs for 1,231 yards. That latter number includes Rico Brown – who is now a defensive back. The Hilltoppers have Joel German back, a redshirt junior who missed 2012 with a shoulder injury, who caught eight passes for 87 yards in 2011.
Eight new faces are on the Western Kentucky roster listed as wide receivers. All will be expected to chip in.
“We’re going to have to depend on the whole group,” WKU wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas said. “This an offense where we’re going to to establish the run game, but we’re also going to pass the football around. The young guys that we have, I think it’s about five or six freshmen, they’re all competing for an opportunity. These older guys, too, are competing every day – and I’m very proud of them. They’ve really stepped up to the plate. We’ve made it uncomfortable at times, but like I told them at the end of today’s practice, I was very proud of the way they pushed through. It’s very intense out there and you have to get used to it.”
True freshmen Taywan Taylor – from Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville – and Nicholas Norris – from Booker T. Washington in Miami – have already been “promoted” from the newcomers camp to the veterans camp this week.
On Wednesday, they worked with redshirt senior Jamarielle Brown, sophomore Austin Aikens, sophomore Stephon Brown, redshirt junior Willie McNeal and German.
“It’s extremely tough to learn this offense,” Thomas said. “What we’re trying to do and what I’m trying to do is teach them different ways on how to study and to learn the offense. Just a couple months ago they were at prom. This is very intense for them, but they’re doing a great job and I’m very proud of them.”
McNeal is undoubtedly the No. 1 target in the group, having hauled in 69 passes for 916 yards and eight touchdowns during his WKU career. The Bradenton, Fla., native had a team-high 43 receptions last year – three different Arkansas receivers had at least 41 in 2011.
“Coach is telling me everyday that I have to lead the group,” McNeal said. “I do what I’ve got to do, make sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do. I love it that we’re throwing the ball a lot. We’ve just got to make the plays now. They’re giving us the opportunity, now all we got to do is just make the plays.”
Petrino and Thomas have both labeled Taylor as an early standout in camp. The 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound prospect caught 52 passes for 1,169 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at PRP. He and Norris are in direct competition, Petrino said, while freshmen Shaquille Johnson and Kylen Towner are fighting for a slot receiver position, and Aaron Jackson and Cam Lewis are battling at a third WR position on the depth chart.
“We’ll need two or three of (the newcomers) to really step up and get prepared and contribute in the first game of the year,” Petrino said. “There’s a lot of talent there. But we need to learn and see who can pick it up the quickest.”
Tops add another game with Illinois
WKU has added a road football game at Illinois to the 2017 football schedule, athletic director Todd Stewart announced today. The game will be played Sept. 16, 2017, in Champaign.
The 2017 meeting is in addition to a previously announced game with the Illini on Sept. 6, 2014, in Champaign. The 2014 game will be the first ever between the Hilltoppers and the Illini, and will mark the fourth active member of the Big Ten that WKU has faced, taking on Wisconsin in 2001, Indiana in 2008 and both Indiana and Nebraska in 2010.