You can summarize Western Kentucky's 2009 season in one sentence: The Hilltoppers didn't win a single game, and fired head coach Dave Elson, who led them through the transition to 1-A (aka the "Bowl Championship Subdivision"). Enter Willie Taggart, who returns to Western Kentucky as head coach. Taggart was a four-year starting quarterback for the Hilltoppers from 1995-98, and still holds several records including career rushing touchdowns (47). After graduating, he joined the Hilltoppers staff and became offensive coordinator in 2001, then assistant head coach in 2003. In 2006, he joined the staff at Stanford as running backs coach, where he coached Toby Gerhart, who finished second in the Heisman voting last season.
Now he's back at his alma mater, where he returns 18 starters from a team that's lost 20 straight games. You decide if that's a good thing or notJunior running back Bobby Rainey has to be excited for the chance to play for a coach who turned a 3-star fullback prospect into a Heisman Trophy runner-up. Rainey ran for 939 yards and six touchdowns last season, but finished strong with hundred-yard efforts against Louisiana-Monroe and Florida Atlantic. Redshirt freshman Keshawn Simpson can be the thunder to Rainey's lightning; the 230 lb Simpson ran for over 2400 yards and 27 touchdowns as a high school senior.
Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes injured his ankle playing basketball, and was passed up by Juco transfer Matt Pelesasa, who is expected to manage the offense in Taggart's version of the West Coast Offense. Jakes is too athletic to keep off the field, so he may see some time as a slash player or perhaps a wide receiver. The Hilltoppers lack a solid contributor at receiver. Tight end Jack Doyle is probably the Hilltoppers' best receiver with 37 catches for 365 yards and a touchdown last season.
Four starters return on the offensive line, so Hilltopper fans are optimistic that this group will be improved in 2010.
Last year, the Hilltopper defense could be best described as "dreadful"; they're switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 with former Kansas assistant Clint Bowen taking over as defensive coordinator. The defensive line last year was young and unproductive; there are enough young bodies that they hope to find four players. They'll start with defensive end Jared Clendenin.
Senior linebacker Thomas Majors was the Hilltoppers' leading tackler last season with 101 stops, three for a loss. The hope is that increased pressure up front will allow Majors to become more disruptive. Junior strong safety Mark Santoro added 91 tackles last year, making the plays that the defenders playing up front couldn't. The rest of the secondary is wide open as the Hilltoppers were dead last in the nation in passing efficiency. Six freshmen were brought in to add to the competition.
There will be a familiar face in the Hilltoppers' traveling party. Former Husker basketball announcer Randy Lee is now the "Voice of the Hilltoppers"; I'm pretty sure he's anticipating catching up with old friends and associates more than the game itself.
The Hilltoppers twenty-game losing streak probably won't end early in the season; after leaving Lincoln, Western Kentucky plays at Kentucky, hosts Indiana, then travels to South Florida. Three close (under a touchdown) losses in the final three games of the 2009 season could provide Hilltopper fans with a reason for a small bit of optimism going into this season that things might start getting better with a new coaching staff, especially one with ties to the glory days of Hilltopper football. After the last couple of seasons, anything would be an improvement.