John Clay: WKU’s new era all about airing it out

Western Kentucky Coach Bobby Petrino, left, called 69 passing plays during the Red-White spring game Saturday.
Western Kentucky Coach Bobby Petrino, left, called 69 passing plays during the Red-White spring game Saturday.

BOWLING GREEN — Different stage, different school, different players, different program, different town, different conference, different circumstance, same Bobby Petrino.

During their spring football game Saturday, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers threw the football 69 times. The Red team, mostly projected starters, completed 26 of 43 passes for 357 yards and six touchdowns on the way to 509 yards of total offense.

Were you expecting something else from a Petrino-coached team?

“Overall,” said the new top Topper, “I thought we had a very productive spring.”

Overall, the players and alums appear happy with their new if somewhat controversial hire. A crowd estimated at 6,500 showed up at Houchens-Smith Stadium. That’s not a Kentucky spring game crowd (50,831) or an Auburn spring game crowd (83,401), but it is nearly double what Western drew for the same game a year ago.

By the way, that Aug. 31 opener at LP Field in Nashville between Western Kentucky and UK, featuring Petrino versus new UK boss Mark Stoops, will arrive sooner than we think.

Though Petrino was exiled from football for a year after scandal cost him his job at Arkansas, the 52-year-old appears to have picked up right where he left off.

Saturday, Western looked very much like a Petrino team. It ran the same pass routes and offensive scheme as his previous college teams at Louisville and Arkansas. If Western has different talent, it’s still going to run the same Petrino offense under the same criteria.

“We’re going to grind hard every day,” he said. “We have to get it to where they expect that from themselves every day and from their teammates every day. We’re not quite there yet.”

Petrino isn’t quite there yet as far as choosing a starting quarterback, either. Yes, Brandon Doughty started and completed 23 of 35 passes for 314 yards and five touchdowns for the Red team. No, Petrino isn’t ready to name Doughty as his guy.

“He’s had the better spring when you combine everything together,” Petrino said. “He ran the offense better than the other two guys have at this point. He’s done some nice things.”

Doughty is attempting a comeback, too. The junior from Davie, Fla., was a starter for a game as a redshirt freshman in 2011 before injuring his ACL and missing the season. He plummeted to third-team before finally working his way back to a position where he could be the starter.

“It was important,” Doughty said of the spring. “I wanted to prove to myself and to my teammates that I could still compete and lead this team.”

To be a Petrino quarterback, however, it’s trial by fire. The coach is known to be hard on his most important player with an in-your-face coaching style.

“That’s been a little bit of an adjustment,” Doughty admitted. “But look at that guy (former Arkansas quarterback) Tyler Wilson. He’s going to get drafted just because Coach Petrino is such a good coach. He knows his schemes so well. That’s exciting to me.”

Willie McNeal, the receiver who caught 43 passes a year ago and caught seven passes for 115 yards and three touchdowns Saturday, is excited as well.

“Our (receivers) coach tells us all the time that Coach P is an offensive guru,” McNeal said. “He’s going to put you in the place where you need to be. All you’ve got to do is just make the play.”

Maybe this is where Petri-no needs to be, as well. He’s starting over with different players on a totally different scale, but in a place where he can show his schemes and his coaching still work.

“I’ve been very pleased with our guys and their attitude and their willingness to learn,” he said. “And I think they’re very excited about the schemes that we run and see how that will relate to giving them a chance to play in the future.”