WKU running backs have a chance to be ‘1-2-3-4 punch’

Junior running back Keshawn Simpson participates in an agility drill during Wednesday evening’s practice at Smith Stadium.

Lucas Aulbach

You might not recognize the WKU backfield when it takes the field on Saturday against Austin Peay, but the loss of Bobby Rainey doesn’t mean the loss of the Topper running game.

As Rainey, WKU’s all-time leading rusher, continues playing for a Baltimore Ravens’ roster spot, WKU will trot out a full stable of running backs this season to replace the hole he left in the offense.

Two players in particular have gotten the majority of the carries during practice — juniors Keshawn Simpson and Antonio Andrews.

Both backs bring a different skill set to the field. Simpson considers himself a power running back, while the lighter Andrews believes his agility and finesse are his strongest attributes.

“We’re all really competitive,” Simpson said of the backs. “We’re all just trying to get more reps and lock up that starting spot.”

Simpson and Andrews haven’t spent the last two years riding the bench behind Rainey.

Both saw action on the field last year — Simpson finished the season with 134 yards in eight games, while Andrews saw action at running back and as a kick returner, ending the year with 590 total yards.

In addition to running the ball, Andrews will probably see time as a kick returner for the Toppers this season as well.

Freshman running back John Evans, who is no longer with the team, joined them in the backfield last season.

Simpson said he and Andrews both learned a lot playing behind Rainey.

“I’m really proud of him,” Simpson said. “He taught me a lot while he was here, and I know every guy on this team is rooting for him to do well up in Baltimore.”

While neither has been named as the starter for the first game yet, both will probably see time in every game this year.

Freshman Leon Allen, a Miami native who has separated himself as a solid No. 3 back in camp and been praised by players and coaches this fall, will join them.

Allen wasn’t allowed to talk to the Herald for this story, per a WKU football policy which prevents freshmen from talking to the media.

Simpson was listed as the the Toppers’ No. 1 running back on the team depth chart released Monday at the team’s weekly media luncheon.

However that doesn’t mean only Simpson will play, coach Willie Taggart said.

“We’ll have a rotation when we go in there, and as the game goes on we’ll adjust,” he said.

Andrews thinks Allen, along with the rest of WKU’s running backs, gives the Toppers great depth at the position.

“Coach Taggart’s been trying to pound that into the system for the longest time — a running back by committee,” Andrews said. “Going through this fall camp, it’s starting to show that we’ve got a one-two-three punch, and even a one-two-three-four punch if more guys step up.”

The running backs have had three weeks to prove themselves to the coaching staff. Players reported to fall camp on Aug. 5 and practiced almost every day until camp concluded on Saturday.

Those three weeks have given all of the running backs time to work together, and Andrews said he and Simpson share a strong bond with the rest of the running backs.

“At the end of they day, we’re all best friends when we step out here on the field,” he said. “We’re all competing for the first spot, but we’re teammates.

“Me and Keshawn have been going at it since I’ve been here so it’s always great competition.”

Rainey won’t be scoring touchdowns for the Toppers this year, but Taggart thinks the example he set remains a strength for WKU.

“They played with Bobby and I think it gives them some motivation knowing that they can play with an NFL-caliber player,” he said. “They can see that Bobby went out and did something and it’s on them to go out and do something now.”