COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
Sun Belt PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Bobby Petrino, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Brohm | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Holt
New Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino has plenty of threats from multiple sets with the Hilltoppers, who feature one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in college football in senior running back Antonio Andrews. Last season, Andrews led the nation with 3,161 all-purpose yards, making him and Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders, the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner, the only players in FBS history to eclipse 3,000 all-purpose yards in a season.
Kawaun Jakes, who started 44 games in the last four years, graduated, leaving the quarterback job to Brandon Doughty. A junior, Doughty passed for 314 yards in the Spring Game and was a starter two years ago before being injured. He emerged ahead of James Mauro and DaMarcus Smith, a former UCF signee who hasn’t played in two seasons. Mauro left the team after spring practice, but Western Kentucky signed Butte College passer Nelson Fishback to compete for the starting job this fall.
Top wide receiving threat Willie McNeal is a veteran who caught six touchdown passes in 2012. Sophomore Austin Aikens has big-play ability, averaging 27.1 yards on only eight catches.
Tight end is a focal point of Petrino’s offense, and the position is well-stocked. Former wide receiver Tyler Higbee is long and lanky with good hands, while Mitchell Henry and Tim Gorski are dependable.
Three players with a combined 80 starts over three seasons return to the line — left tackle Cameron Clemmons, left guard Luis Polanco and center Sean Conway. Stepping in at right tackle is senior Ed Hazelett, a load at 6'8" and 324 pounds.
It’s feast or famine under new coordinator Nick Holt, who had similar gigs at USC and Washington. He implements an aggressive and attacking style from the basic 4-3 set.
The feast part is the return of all four defensive backs and two of three linebackers. Strong safety Kiante Young is a tackling machine who recorded 83 stops a year ago. Free safety Jonathan Dowling, a first-team all-league pick, had six interceptions — including three in a win at Kentucky — to tie for fifth in the country. On the corners, Tyree Robinson has 33 career starts, while Cam Thomas led the team in pass breakups.
Two-time all-league middle linebacker Andrew Jackson has consecutive 100-plus tackle seasons and is a candidate for recognition as the league’s top defensive player. Xavius Boyd is back after having at least five tackles in 11 games last season.
The entire front departed, leaving five returnees who combined to start four games in 2012. Ends Calvin Washington and Gavin Rocker flashed some playmaking ability last season in limited duty. Junior college transfers Maurice Bennett and Raphael Cox need to be quick fixes.
Punter Hendrix Brakefield led the Sun Belt at 42.1 yards per punt, while Garrett Schwettmann is back after making 10-of-13 field goals as a true freshman. The return game is in good shape with Andrews, who finished in the top 20 nationally in both punt and kickoff returns.
Western Kentucky made a big splash when it hired Petrino to replace Willie Taggart, who parlayed the school’s first trip to a bowl game into the head coaching position at South Florida.
Petrino sees the WKU opportunity as a step in rehabilitating his career after departing Arkansas in disgrace for non-football (and highly publicized) indiscretions. He might not be the most popular guy, but he can coach football, especially offense. With Petrino and offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm running the show, the Hilltoppers should feature one of the top offenses in the Sun Belt. If the defense cooperates, Western can challenge for the title in its final season in the league.
There will be lots of eyes — locally and nationally — on how Petrino’s team fares, and how he conducts his business in the process.