Taggart preaches physical play at Sun Belt Media Day

NEW ORLEANS — WKU coach Willie Taggart addresses media on Monday at the Marriott Hotel during Sun Belt Conference Football Media Day. Taggart’s Toppers were picked by the league’s 10 head coaches to finish fourth this year in the Sun Belt.

Brad Stephens

NEW ORLEANS — At this time last year, Willie Taggart was sitting in the Diddle Arena media room addressing Sun Belt Conference media members via conference call.

So when Taggart looked around a group of reporters from his seat at a table in a Marriott Hotel ballroom on Monday morning, he used the Sun Belt’s first live media day since 2008 as an example of the league’s improvement.

“You look at this conference as a whole, we’re getting better in every aspect,” Taggart said. “You look at Media Day last year, that was a little ghetto-fabulous. Now look at us. We’re in New Orleans, that’s awesome.”

Despite the progress, one question to Taggart kept popping up from the event: “How will you replace Bobby Rainey?”

Rainey ran for 1,695 yards in 2011, a school record. For his efforts, Rainey was named an All-American by several publications and Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year for the second straight season.

Rainey finished his career with 4,542 rushing yards, a WKU record.

But Taggart said he’s got a stable of backs that can make up for his lost production.

“We’re loaded,” a smiling Taggart said. “We’re loaded and no one knows it. I love it. I love hearing this talk about ‘Oh you lost Bobby, what are you going to do?’

“People forgot that we’ve been out recruiting. We’ve done a great job recruiting and I love all the guys we’ve got. I think they’re going to be exciting to watch. Sooner or later, they’re going to call us ‘Running Back U.'”

Senior tight end Jack Doyle served as the Toppers’ player representative for the event. He said WKU’s current stable of running backs, including juniors Antonio Andrews and Keshawn Simpson and sophomore John Evans, bring different skills than Rainey.

“Bobby was one of the best players I’ve ever played with and was awesome as a running back,” Doyle said. “We’ve got some guys that can do some different stuff than what Bobby did and some guys that can do the same stuff as Bobby did.

“We have some guys that can fill that role by committee and it’s really going to push those guys to compete with each other because they’re fighting for carries.”

One position that, for a change, doesn’t seem to have an open competition is quarterback.

Senior Kawaun Jakes had to fight off competition in the 2010 and 2011 fall preseason camps.

But after Jakes helped the Toppers to a 7-5 record a year ago. He completed 55.4 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,854 yards with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Jakes “has taken ownership of the offense,” Doyle said.

“Kawaun’s really taken the position by storm and run away with it,” Doyle said.

Backing up Jakes will be sophomore Brandon Doughty and redshirt freshman James Mauro.

Jakes will lead Taggart’s I-formation, pro-style offense that’s become more of a rarity in modern college football as teams shift to pass-heavy spread offenses.

Taggart said he liked the physical play that comes with WKU’s offensive scheme, the blueprints of which came from his days as a Stanford assistant.

“We build off our running game and being physical,” Taggart said. “You can’t play this game not being physical on defense and not being physical on offense.

“We’re different from everybody else now. Everyone’s running the spread. We got a traditional fullback back there that likes to rattle opponents and we’re going to run downhill.”

Other WKU notes:

—Tyrone Pearson, a Rivals.com three-star defensive tackle signee from Louisville Seneca High School, is ineligible to play this fall because of grades, Taggart confirmed.

Pearson will be taking classes in the fall in hopes to become eligible for the 2013 season.

—A reporter asked Taggart, if he had to choose, whether he would prefer having the Sun Belt’s best offense or best defense.

Taggart didn’t hesitate in picking defense.

“I believe defense wins championships,” Taggart said. “Look at (2011 Sun Belt champion) Arkansas State, last year they had a great defense… Look at (2011 national champion) Alabama, they won with great defense.

“That’s one thing we’re trying to do is get better on defense because that will help us tremendously.”