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        ***** NCAA Football Preview - Western Kentucky Hilltoppers *****
 
 By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
 
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: In just his second-year as head coach of the Western
 Kentucky Hilltoppers, Willie Taggart has turned the team from Sun Belt cellar
 dweller to a legitimate conference contender.
 
 After winning just two games in 2010, the Hilltoppers 2011 campaign started off
 on a similar dour tone as they lost their first four tilts, including a 26-22
 decision to Arkansas State in their Sun Belt opener.
 
 The squad responded to the poor start wonderfully by winning seven of its last
 eight games, including a pair of thrillers on the road at Middle Tennessee
 (36-33 in double OT) and ULM (31-28 in OT). Its only loss during that stretch
 was one that was easily forgiven, as it fell on the road to No. 1 LSU (42-9).
 
 Western Kentucky finished the season with a 7-5 overall record. Its seven wins
 in the conference and second-place finish in the Sun Belt marking the team's
 best season since joining the FBS in 2008. Despite being bowl-eligible for the
 first time, the Hilltoppers were not invited to postseason play.
 
 2012 ANALYSIS:
 
 OFFENSE: WKU had a modest offense by Sun Belt standards a year ago, averaging
 22.9 points per game and 348.9 yards per game, but it was arguably the most
 balanced. The club's 2,179 rushing yards being tops in the league.
 
 A big reason for the success on the ground was the outstanding season turned in
 by tailback Bobby Rainey (1,810 yards, 13 TDs), but with him graduated, the
 returning backs -- Kadeem Jones, Antonio Andrews, Keshaun Simpson and John
 Evans -- combined for just over 300 yards a season ago. Despite the
 inexperience, Taggart is thrilled with his talent in the backfield.
 
 "I love all the guys we've got," Taggart said. "I think they're going to be
 exciting to watch. Sooner or later, they're going to call us 'Running Back U.'"
 
 "We're different from everybody else now." he continued. "Everyone's running
 the spread. We got a traditional fullback back there that likes to rattle
 opponents and we're going to run downhill."
 
 The return of four starters along the offensive line should be a great benefit
 for the ball carriers.
 
 Returning as the quarterback for the smash-mouth style offense is Kawaun Jakes,
 who completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 1,854 yards, 10 touchdowns and 12
 interceptions last year. The senior has put up similar numbers in all three of
 his seasons as a starter, and while a small improvement may be coming, he's
 pretty much displayed what kind of player he is by this point in his career.
 
 The returning starters at receiver, Rico Brown (185 yards) and Marcus Vasquez
 (134 yards), may be nothing to brag about, but Jakes has the luxury of dumping
 the ball off to one of the most productive tight ends in the conference in Jack
 Doyle (52 catches, 614 yards).
 
 DEFENSE: A smash-mouth offense usually goes hand-in-hand with a solid defense,
 and the 2011 Hilltoppers were no exception. Their average yield (373.8 ypg,
 24.8 ppg) ranked in the upper-half of the conference standings.
 
 The strength of the unit once again appears to be the defensive line, which was
 successful in both stopping the run and getting to the quarterback a season
 ago. High-motor players like tackle Jamarcus Allen (39 tackles, 7 tackles for
 loss) and Quanterus Smith (11 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) highlight an
 experienced rotation.
 
 The defense will also benefit from the return of its middle linebacker and
 top playmaker Andrew Jackson. Jackson wreaked havoc all over the field,
 recording 109 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 interception and 1
 forced fumble, earning First Team All-Sun Belt Conference honors in the
 process.
 
 The secondary was a weakness last season, surrendering 3,137 passing yards --
 second-most in the conference. Elevated play from returning safeties Kiante
 Young (33 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Kareem Peterson (50 tackles, 3
 interceptions) will be imperative for improvement in the defensive backfield.
 
 SPECIAL TEAMS: Between Casey Tinius and Jesse Roy, the placekicking game was an
 absolute mess a year ago. The two combined to make just 5-of-19 attempts, so
 the competition will be wide open in fall camp. Hendrix Brakefield will return
 as the punter after averaging 41.6 yards per boot in 2011.
 
 Both Evans and Andrews were effective in the kick return game, amassing more
 than 500 yards apiece. Evans had a 90-yard return for a touchdown.
 
 OUTLOOK: Considering that Western Kentucky's success last year was largely
 unexpected and most of its offensive production is gone now that Rainey has
 graduated, predictions for this season are sketchy at best. Still, Taggart is
 confidently optimistic heading into the campaign.
 
 "We're loaded," Taggart said. "We're loaded and no one knows it. I love it. I
 love hearing this talk about 'Oh you lost Bobby (Rainey), what are you going to
 do?'"
 
 Taggart's excitement aside, the fact remains that there's inexperience in the
 backfield. It'll be a big challenge for the running backs to come anywhere
 close to Rainey's numbers. Jakes brings veteran leadership to the offense and
 the defense should be just as good if not slightly better, but to anticipate
 another seven-win season in the conference may be setting the bar a bit too
 high.
 
 
 
 08/21 12:04:41 ET