By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: In their first full-fledged season as a FBS member, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers went winless at 0-12. The team was outscored by
over 19 points per game and midway through the season head coach David Elson
was even fired.
A 63-7 loss in the team's opener at Tennessee set the tone for the 2009
campaign, as WKU was simply overmatched in many of its games. The Toppers
dropped each of their first five games by at least 16 points before hanging
tough in a 30-22 setback against UL-Lafayette. The squad's next three losses
came by an average of 25.6 ppg prior to WKU closing out the season on a more
competitive note. The Toppers' final three losses came by a total of just 13
points, showing this team had improved as the season wore on.
Hoping to build off the late season surge is first-year head coach Willie
Taggart, a former standout quarterback that set 11 WKU records from 1995-98.
Taggart, who recently spent time as Stanford's running backs coach, inherits a
club that is trying to snap out of a nation-long 20-game losing streak.
"I have always followed Western Kentucky University, ever since I was in
school here," said Taggart. "When I saw this opportunity, I knew this was the
opportunity of a lifetime."
OFFENSE: New changes can be expected on both sides of the ball, but more so on
offense, where Taggart is instilling a West Coast Offense. The change is a
drastic one from the spread-option attack run the last three years at WKU, so
Taggart went out in search of the right pieces for the new system.
Taggart's journey landed him quarterback Matt Pelesasa (6-2, 230), a junior
college transfer that has risen to the top of the depth chart. Pelesasa has a
good arm and the tools to succeed in this offense. Helping his cause was an
injury in the spring to sophomore Kawaun Jakes (6-3, 190), who started eight
of the final nine contests last season and posted 1,515 passing and 355
rushing yards. Jakes is the more mobile of the two, but is only an average
The Toppers have a relatively inexperienced group of wideouts and are in
need of someone to step up as the top option. One player that is expected to
emerge is redshirt freshman Willie McNeal (5-10, 158), who had an impressive
spring catching and running the ball. Tight end Jack Doyle (6-6, 248) is
another weapon that will surely be utilized after he caught 37 passes for 365
yards as a freshman last season.
The starting tailback job is the one spot that is solidified for WKU, as Bobby
Rainey returns after a successful sophomore campaign. The 5-7, 203-pound
Rainey rushed for 939 yards and six scores last season, averaging a healthy
6.5 yards per carry along the way. He was a second-team all-conference
"We are going to be able to run the ball and that's how we are going to set an
identity is by being able to run it," Taggart said. "We want to be good at it
because it really helps set up things. If we can run it then we can do a lot
of other things in the passing game."
The offensive line is senior dominated and returns three starters that
improved greatly as last season went along. The line however, now must adjust
to the new offensive scheme and that could lead to a step back.
DEFENSE: Under first-year coordinator Clint Bowen, WKU is expected to switch
from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment. The switch can only help, as the Toppers ranked
118th nationally in total defense (478.3 ypg) and 119th in scoring (39.6 ppg)
Leading an young line is Jared Clendenin, who is a two-year starter that will
be counted to provide leadership. The 6-3, 258-pound end registered 40 tackles
and a sack in 2009.
The linebacking corps is the most experienced group of the defense, and Thomas
Majors leads the way. The 6-0, 240-pound Majors was a big factor in his first
season after transferring from Northwest Mississippi Community College,
leading WKU with 101 tackles. Chris Bullard (5-11, 243) and converted safety
Orlando Missalefua (5-10, 208) are also welcomed back after combining for 94
stops last season.
Uncertainty surrounds the secondary after WKU signed six defensive backs that
could also push for a starting spot. Safety Mark Santoro (6-0, 196) gives some
stability to the secondary, as he returns after ranking second on the team
with 91 tackles in 2009.
SPECIAL: Casey Tinius drilled 14-of-19 field goals last season and he has a
firm handle on the place-kicking job. Hendrix Brakefield (6-4, 218), a red-
shirt freshman, is the lead candidate to fill in as punter.
OUTLOOK: The Hilltoppers were heading in the wrong direction last season, but
may have changed things in a hurry with the hiring of Taggart. The former WKU
star knows what it takes to win and has already begun installing his system.
The Toppers should easily be more improved than last season, though it may not
translate into many wins in 2010.