WKU hopes 'blue collar' approach produces more wins

Coaches, players hope hard work pays off

Special to the Herald-LeaderAugust 29, 2011 

W Kentucky Nebraska Football

Western Kentucky Coach Willie Taggart, who addressed his players prior to the team's season opener against Nebraska last season, picked his team to finish first in the Sun Belt Conference.

NATI HARNIK — ASSOCIATED PRESS

It would be hard to tell the difference between members of Western Kentucky's football team and mechanics these days.

In fact, that would be a compliment to the Hilltoppers if that's how their play was described this season.

They've taken a "blue-collar" approach to this season, made official by second-year head coach Willie Taggart and his staff sporting blue work shirts during fall practices.

Senior defensive end Jared Clendenin said the blue shirts signified that the team is "going to work this year."

"Nothing pretty — we need to get grimy this year," said Clendenin, a senior who started all 12 games in 2010. "We've been working as a team since I've been here. I guess the blue collar means we've got to emphasize the work."

The Hilltoppers, as has been the case since they moved to the Football Bowl Subdivision two years ago, will have their work cut out for them.

With a schedule that features two Southeastern Conference teams — Kentucky and Louisiana State — and a Navy team that has been to eight straight bowl games, WKU will once again be faced with an uphill climb to win enough games to qualify for a bowl.

While that schedule might make some people doubters, Taggart isn't one of them. He voted WKU to finish first in the Sun Belt Conference's pre-season coaches' poll — the only coach to do so.

He didn't do it out of pity for his team. He did it because he genuinely believes it.

"My pick was Western Kentucky University," Taggart said matter-of-factly at Sun Belt media day in July. "I think we have our plan and we feel like our plan is a perfect plan for success. If we stay on track and do the things we're asked to do, we'll be there sooner than later."

Part of the reason that Taggart has reason to believe what he says is because the personnel he has to work with that can help back it up.

Senior running back Bobby Rainey was named to three pre-season award watch lists after leading the nation in rush attempts last season with 340. He rushed for 1,649 yards and 15 touchdowns last season en route to being named Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year.

Junior tight end Jack Doyle was named to the Mackey Award watch list — the award given to the nation's best tight end.

Defensively, although young in most areas, the Hilltoppers will be deep. With four defensive linemen returning, the linebacker and secondary positions have been up for grabs. But linebackers coach Karl Maslowski said filling those spots, especially at linebacker, won't be a problem.

"The depth we have at linebacker is almost too much," Maslowski said. "We've got to figure out something to get all these guys on the field. (Defensive Coordinator Lance) Guidry's got a few tricks up his sleeve that will expose that for us."

Guidry said the same depth is there with the defensive backs, as seven players are competing for four spots.

But most of all Guidry — who was made famous by giving a fiery speech to his Miami (Ohio) team when he was interim coach during the GoDaddy.com bowl last season — has brought a new level of intensity to the defense. He said it was an aspect that he saw was missing last season.

Taggart said he expects to see that intensity translate to his players on the field.

"We want to go out and hit people," he said. "Whenever that game is over with — no matter what the outcome is — we want people to say we were one of the hardest hitting football teams they ever played against."

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