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September 10, 2009

Our sportswriters no longer blog on this blog, but on their own individual blogs.

You can find Daily News WKU beat writer Nick Baumgardner with insight on WKU athletics at http://bgdnwkublog.wordpress.com/.

Find sports posts as well as movie reviews from Micheal Compton at http://mcompton.wordpress.com/.

And read prep sportswriter Chad Bishop’s high school blog at http://bgdnprepblog.wordpress.com.

WKU football blog: Full scrimmage No. 1

August 16, 2008

Booker continues to impress

While the offense had little reason to smile on Saturday, one player who continues to have a tremendous fall camp is junior running back Marell Booker.

Booker earned more reps with the first-string offense Saturday than any other Hilltopper running back, including expected starter Tyrell Hayden, proving once again that there are no certainties with starting spots this season.

“There are no sacred cows, and Marell Booker is playing well,” Elson said. “He’s at the top right now, and he ran with the ones. And with some of the young guys being out, we didn’t want Bobby Rainey taking all the snaps with the younger offense, so we put Tyrell in there some.

“We’re just rotating those guys quite a bit, and seeing who’s going to step up and give us the best chance to win.”

Defensive depth

While the starting defensive unit did what was expected Saturday, perhaps just as big of a bright spot came from the backup defenders.

Several young players who used a redshirt last season made plays Saturday, giving the WKU defensive staff reason for optimism in regard to the depth chart.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Duvall showed great sideline-to-sideline speed, and racked up five tackles. Fellow second-year freshman Ryan Beard continued to have a strong offseason, turning in six tackles, including one for a loss.

Expected reserve senior cornerback Chris Franklin was involved on several pass breakups, including a near interception in the end zone that, if caught, could have resulted in a long-distance defensive score.

And perhaps the play of the day came from redshirt freshman safety Mark Santoro, who was able to outleap 6-foot-4 freshman wide receiver Dexter Haynes for a terrific sideline interception.

Kicking battle

With the battle between seniors Zac Minturn and Tanner Siewert essentially at a standstill entering the scrimmage, the edge on Saturday had to go to Minturn.

Minturn connected on a 25-yard FG with the first-team field goal unit during situational drills and connected on all of his situational kicks from 30 yards out. Meanwhile, Siewert struggled at times, coming up wide on several longer distance attempts.

WKU football blog: Thursday mini-scrimmage

August 14, 2008

Getting defensive

Although Tuesday’s first mini-scrimmage finished in a virtual stalemate, the defense appeared to have the upper hand Thursday, making several third-down stops and allowing only one score in full-field drills. 

After a spring session that saw the offense dominate virtually all scrimmages, seeing the defense begin to emerge is a confidence booster for the Hilltoppers. 

“It felt like an entire defense today, I think we played together well,” junior linebacker Blake Boyd said. “You learn from everything and I think we were down a little bit last time. But we went in, watched film and studied and really played a lot better today.”

While the defense has battled injuries all spring and fall, two key contributors – cornerback Marcus Minor and linebacker Alonzo Higgins – appear to be close to returning. With those two veterans back in the lineup, intrasquad competitions might soon start favor the defense.

A healthy Boyd

Among the most overlooked injuries for WKU last season was the one suffered by Boyd. A knee injury required off-season surgery, but the 6-foot-3, 250-pound force has been back and better than ever this fall. 

With WKU facing the toughest schedule in school history this season, having two linebackers with the size and speed of Boyd and Higgins should help the Toppers compete.

“I feel real good, I’ve had a lot of great help from the trainers and support from the rest of the team to get back and everything just feels really good,” Boyd said. “It feels good to be out here just scrimmaging, it’s been a long time since I’ve been out on the field at all and just being back out here to help my team is what I’m happy about the most.”

Freshman action

One of the most impressive drives during Thursday’s mini-scrimmage was led by a pair of freshman quarterbacks.

Freshmen Kawaun Jakes and Marcus Vasquez split time, and both showed their ability to run and throw the ball during the scrimmage’s opening drive, leading a backup unit 80 yards for a touchdown.

The scoring play saw Vasquez throw a 10-yard strike to a brand-new target – 6-foot-4 freshman Dexter Haynes, who moved to wideout from quarterback earlier this week.

Scrimmage standouts

Junior running back Marell Booker continued to look extremely powerful with the ball Thursday, bursting through holes for several double-digit gains. Booker, along with starter Tyrell Hayden, has clearly been the hardest runner during contact drills this season and could find himself climbing the depth chart.

Defensively, junior linebacker L.J. Harbison had another strong practice, making five stops during the scrimmage. Harbison could challenge Higgins – as well as junior Darvis McBride and sophomore Chris Bullard – for extended playing time at inside linebacker.

WKU football blog: Media Day

August 12, 2008

Offensive progression

With a full season of offensive coordinator Kevin Wright’s spread offense now under Western Kentucky’s belt, the Hilltopper coaches seem optimistic about the offensive unit’s grasp of the system.

While last season was basically a crash course in the new approach, practice this year has been focused on fine-tuning and expanding the offense’s full potential.

“You can see the progression, they’re comfortable in the system,” Wright said at Tuesday’s WKU Football Media Day. “We’ve got three guys who’ve got good experience (at quarterback) and to be able to add some of the young guys and guys who redshirted last year is great. 

“We’ve definitely brought more speed to the mix and we’re excited about it. We’re still young, and it’s still about maturing and gaining confidence as we go, but we’ve definitely increased the speed and given ourselves more of a chance to make more big plays in the spread.”

Wright also called the Hilltoppers’ quarterback competition – with three veteran players (K.J. Black, David Wolke and Brandon Smith) all vying for playing time against a crop of freshman signal callers – a positive situation.

Elson maintained that he wants a single quarterback to step up, rather than use a two-headed system like last season. But, Elson cautioned, that is subject to change.

“We told those guys last season going into the spring that we wanted somebody to leave no doubt – that’s exactly how I put it – on who would be the No. 1 quarterback,” Elson said. “But when you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-old men, and with college football being as physical as it is, we’ve been thrown a few curve balls – with David Wolke missing all of spring practice, which allowed Brandon Smith to step up and have a heck of a spring, and now this fall with K.J. nursing a bit of a hamstring (injury).

“We’re bound and determined to let it play out and have one guy be the guy, but I learned from last year, when I said that I was a one-quarterback guy, and then we used two and it worked for us. We’re going to have to manage this like we do with any other position on the team and do whatever’s best for the team.”

Extra points

WIth the loss of mainstay Chris James to graduation, the kicking battle was somewhat of a highlight during spring practice and continues to be this fall.

Special teams coordinator Mike Dietzel said it has essentially a two-horse race between senior Tanner Siewert and junior Zac Minturn.

The race might come down to a photo finish.

“We feel good about the competition,” Dietzel said. “They’re pretty much neck-and-neck right now. We’ve charted every kick they’ve made throughout spring ball and until now and both guys have kicked at about an 80 percent ratio, which is what you want.

“So they are both right there together, and we’ll continue to put them through pressure in situations and scrimmages and keep track of the plusses and minuses and see who wins the job.”

Wolke’s rebound

After missing virtually all of spring practice with what the team called a “weightlifting injury,” senior quarterback David Wolke has been at full strength this fall. 

And with the hamstring trouble of QB frontrunner K.J. Black, Wolke has taken all of the first-team snaps and appears to be finding his groove.

“I’m fine right now,” Wolke said. “It really didn’t change me at all this spring like the injuries did last fall.

“Right now I think the whole offense is doing great, we’re coming along and installing new stuff and really doing great things.”

Other injury developments of note on Tuesday were linebacker Alonzo Higgins, who was in only shorts and shoulder pads due to a nagging groin injury; receiver Ronnie Letcher, who was seen being carted off the field Tuesday with an ice bag around his right ankle; and running back Andrew McCloud, who was not in pads and had a wrap on his right calf. Black did not participate in practice at all on Tuesday. 

Position shakeups

As expected, the migration of some of WKU’s quarterbacks to other positions has begun.

Elson said freshman Dexter Haynes (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) has moved to wide receiver, where he could potentially prove to be an extremely tall target down the road.

The other quarterback switch was redshirt freshman Tyler Bruce, who will take his athleticism to the defensive backfield. Bruce was at free safety during Tuesday’s mini-scrimmage.

Wright said during Media Day that other changes will be made as the coaching staff sees fit.

“As opportunities come open at different positions, guys will look around to try and find a way onto the field,” Wright said. “I’ve been impressed with all of them so far, and with the guys we already had there, we’re in a very good situation.”

WKU football blog: Padding it up

August 8, 2008

Full-contact debut

The Western Kentucky football team worked through its first official fully padded practice Friday, as the team had been in helmets the first three days of the week and helmets and shoulder pads on Thursday.

WKU coach David Elson said that overall the first live day was a beneficial one.

“It was good, having the pads on slows things down a bit with the tempo, but I think we were operating pretty officially, guys were flying around and showing some enthusiasm and the weather being nice helped us out,” Elson said. “Overall I was pleased, but we’ll look at the film and see exactly how well we did.”

Injury update

Two notable players were held out of full-contact drills on Friday due to injury. Both sophomore quarterback K.J. Black – who is currently first on the depth chart – and senior inside linebacker Alonzo Higgins – who is also expected to start – sat out all of the contact drills with a sore hamstring and groin, respectively.

“K.J. has a sore hamstring so we’re trying to be smart there,” Elson said. “And Alzono, we’re being very cautious with his groin and trying to be smart right now to make sure they’re 100 percent.”

Each player did get work done, as Black did a good portion of throwing during quarterback only drills, while Higgins worked out on the sideline in shoulder pads and shorts – mainly on leg-focused drills.

Two other notable injuries that occurred Friday were to L.J. Harbison and Dan Cline. Harbison appeared to suffer an arm injury late in practice during full-contact drills, while Cline appeared to have some sort of lower leg issue. Elson didn’t seem overly concerned immediately after practice, but did say he was going to look into both players’ injuries as soon as possible.

Hit of the day

The biggest hit of the afternoon had to go to fifth-year senior defensive back Chris Franklin. Franklin had a clear shot at wide receiver Quinterrance Cooper on a hitch route and took the opportunity to unload on him, jarring the ball loose.

The hit sent the entire defensive sideline into an extreme celebration for around 30 seconds following the play. But not all of it was rewarded with high fives and applause, as Elson was quick to punish the entire defense with extra push ups after what he called an “excessive celebration.” It seems as if the coaching staff is doing all it can to avoid any situations similar to what happened at North Texas during the final game of last season.

WKU football blog, Day 2

August 6, 2008

Speed reads

For the second straight day, Western Kentucky coaches stressed speed and high tempo at fall practice. And though it’s only been two days  at such a high pace, things appear to be clicking.

“We got all our plays in again, I actually thought we were behind at one point but we were going so fast that I didn’t even realize it,” WKU coach David Elson said. “We were still a little sloppy and had a few problems with the center-quarterback exchange and I thought toward the end we started to get tired and lost concentration and communication a bit.”

Elson said that the coaching staff went another step further with the installation of plays. With the added information sometimes comes a bit of overload – something the team will try to improve.

“We put more in today, but we’ve got to start to build and get better at concentrating toward the end of practice and finish the day off,” he said.

Getting his feet back

I spoke with senior defensive end Dan Cline on Tuesday, and it appears the foot injury that forced him to miss a good portion of spring practice – as well as the Red and White game – is completely healed.

That has to be encouraging for the Hilltopper coaching staff, who will be counting on the 6-foot-6 Cline as a returning starter at left defensive end.

“Foot’s going great, it feels good,” Cline said. “I spent countless hours in the summer rehabbing it and so far everything feels good and I’m just ready to get back out there.

“There’s really no pain there.”

Other than the healed foot, there’s one more thing different about Cline this season — his mohawk. Cline received the custom cut from teammate – and apparently amateur barber – Marell Booker, and said it’s something he’s been meaning to get to for a long time.

“I’m going to be graduating here in four months, and when that’s done, I can’t just go to job interviews with any haircut I want,” he said. “So I’ve always wanted a mohawk, my parents wouldn’t let me get one as a kid.

“And I figured I’ve only got four or five months until I enter the real world, so I might as well do it now.”

Increased competition

Elson and his staff offered a unique bit of competition Tuesday amongst not only the team’s eight total quarterbacks, but also the entire offensive and defensive units.

In an effort to run one-on-one passing drills with more efficiency, Elson paired four quarterbacks with the wide receivers (who ran routes against the defensive backs) and the other four with the running backs (who ran against the linebackers). The stipulation was that whichever side (offensive or defensive) had the most success (completions or incompletions) got to avoid punishment at the end of practice.

Sophomore K.J. Black, senior David Wolke, freshman Anthony Sheppard and freshman Marcus Vasquez threw with the wideouts, while junior Brandon Smith, sophomore Tyler Bruce, freshman Kawaun Jakes and freshman Dexter Haynes worked with the backs.

In the end, the offense finished with 30 completions to the defense’s 26 pass breakups – meaning the entire defense (coaches included) hit the ground for added pushups during post-practice stretching.

WKU football blog

August 5, 2008

With the highly anticipated 2008 Western Kentucky football season officially underway, I figured it was time to try something I’ve wanted to take a stab at for a while – blogging.

As the Hilltoppers venture into their second full season as a legitimate NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision member, I’ll be using this blog space to try and give readers extra insight on practices, games and any other tidbits that I simply can’t fit into a daily story for the print edition. 

I hope it’s something that’s enjoyable to you. Feel free to comment when necessary. 

Quarterback overload

One thing that stood out the most on Monday’s first official practice was the abundance of black practice jerseys on the field. For those who don’t know, WKU – like many schools – dresses their quarterbacks in different color practice jerseys in an effort to avoid live contact whenever possible. With the addition of four freshman quarterback recruits, the Hilltoppers opened the season with a hearty stable of signal callers: eight in total.

Sophomore quarterback K.J. Black – currently No. 1 on the depth chart – said that having that many quarterbacks in camp made things interesting when it came to getting in reps. He said he’s never been in a camp with so many players needing time at quarterback.

“I’m not complaining right now, though,” Black laughed. “It just means I don’t have to go as much. Last year we had the problem where we only had like four quarterbacks and 10 running backs to work with, and now we’ve got eight quarterbacks shifting in.”

Black said the running backs might be annoyed by the shuffling of players who are handing them the ball, but it’s something he figured they would live with.

“They’ll get used to it,” he said. 

Both Black and coach David Elson hinted that some of the incoming freshman might change positions in the upcoming weeks, but Elson maintained Monday that all the quarterbacks on the roster will be given a chance at that position.

Ryan’s return

The start of practice marked an extra special day for senior offensive tackle Greg Ryan. One of the team’s best linemen throughout his career, Ryan – who voluntarily sat out last season with redshirt status in preparation for this year – was officially back in fall camp Monday, readying himself for his senior year. 

He said he couldn’t be more excited about being back.

“It feels great, to tell you the truth,” Ryan said. “It’s been a long time coming, and like I told the team this morning, I’ve been waiting for this for a year now. I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines, and I’m ready to go.”

With Ryan likely holding things down at left tackle this season, the plethora of Hilltopper quarterbacks are most assuredly ready to see him in action as well.

Whole new feel

After the first official practice with the newly renovated side of Houchens-Smith Stadium upright and standing, Elson said the stadium feels more like a college football atmosphere.

“I’ll tell you what, it’s louder in here,” Elson said. “You can already tell that it’s going to be a great game day experience … just with us yelling and screaming and hooting and hollering gave us some noise issues.

“And that’s going to help us with some of the places we’ll be playing on the road, and it just feels a heck of a lot more like college football when you’ve got both sides of the stadium.”

 


Future bowl question

December 6, 2007

Nick Baumgardner
With much of the recent buzz around college football focusing on the Bowl Championship Series debacle, one thing some Western Kentucky fans might have overlooked is that future Sun Belt foe Troy was left out in the postseason cold.

Yes, that same 8-4 Troy team that finished 6-1 in the Sun Belt. The same Trojan squad that knocked off Mike “I’m a Man” Gundy and Oklahoma State (who, by the way, finished with a 6-6 record, and will be playing in this year’s Insight Bowl) and lost to BCS-bound Georgia by just 10 on the road. In fact, all four Troy losses were to bowl-bound teams (Florida, Arkansas, Georgia and Sun Belt champion Florida Atlantic).

What does all this mean and what does it have to do with Western Kentucky? Basically, it means that when WKU makes its full transition into the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt in 2009, it might have to win the Sun Belt outright to secure a postseason party.

Now I know that last season Middle Tennessee was able to squeak into the Motor City Bowl as an at-large team, but with the recent snubbing of Troy (who has a much better resume than last year’s Blue Raider’s squad did), one can’t help but wonder if that was maybe a one-time deal.

And while nothing is ever written in stone (especially in the recent head-scratching world of college football), it looks like the Hilltoppers will really have no choice but to hit the ground running once they enter the Sun Belt in ’09.

Otherwise, any participation WKU might have in a warm-weather holiday bowl excursion might have to take place the old fashioned way: Through the TV set.