Receivers prepare for bigger role in offense

Lucas Aulbach

At times last season, the wide receivers played second fiddle in WKU’s passing offense. Just one receiver averaged over one catch per game at the end of the year.

This season, the first under coach Bobby Petrino and an entirely new coaching staff, could be a different story.

Wide receivers were responsible for just 90 of WKU’s total of 213 completed passes last year. Tight ends and running backs pulled in the majority of quarterback Kawaun Jakes’ throws.

Petrino’s offense uses receivers as the primary pass-catchers, meaning WKU’s receivers are preparing for a much larger role in the offense this year.

Junior Willie McNeal was the standout at receiver las season, hauling in 43 catches and a team-high six touchdown receptions.

McNeal said he’s seen his fellow pass-catchers step up in the first three weeks of practice in hopes of securing a coveted starting spot.

“Everybody knows it’s an open field,” McNeal said Wednesday. “Ain’t no starting spots — it’s a clean sheet, so everybody’s trying to get that starting spot.”

Topper receivers looking to improve have a good model to learn from.

Wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas played caught passes at the University of Miami from 1988-92, winning two national championships and finishing with the school record in career receptions. He went on to play in the NFL for eight seasons.

Thomas said the practices he and the coaching staff run are very similar to those he saw in his time in the NFL.

“This is what you see in the League — very fast-paced,” he said. “We teach. We learn. Then we go out and execute it.”

Thomas, in his first season on the WKU coaching staff, is spending the spring identifying what kind of weapons he’ll have at his disposal next season.

He said figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of the different Topper receivers is an ongoing process.

“Every day is an evaluation process and we are putting them in certain positions,” Thomas said. “We aren’t trying to out-scheme our defense, we want to see who can make the plays when the opportunity arises.”

While McNeal was the standout last season, sophomore wide receiver Austin Aikens could be poised for a breakout this year.

Aikens hauled in just eight passes in his freshman year last season but led the team in yards per catch with an average of 27 yards per reception.

The sophomore said he and the other receivers have learned to pay attention when coach Thomas is giving directions, thanks in part to his NFL experience.

“Every time he gets up to speak we have to make sure that we listen to him because he’s been there,” Aikens said. “He knows what’s expected and everything that we have to do.”

The difficulties in learning an entirely new playbook have saddled every position group at WKU this offseason.

The wide receivers, however, have the added motivation of becoming a bigger part of the offense than they were a year ago.

Aikens said he’s looking forward to having more chances to prove himself this season.

“Last year wasn’t really a passing offense,” he said. “This year we are going to be slinging the ball left and right, so it is pretty exciting.”

Thomas said his receivers should embrace their new, bigger role.

“We came here and it is a whole different offense for them,” he said. “A lot of these guys, last year, they blocked a lot. They ran the ball a lot, and now you have a passing offense. I think they are looking forward to the challenge.”