Toppers focus on improving during first spring practice

Freshman offensive linemen Delryn Wilson, right, and Darrell Williams work on drills during their first spring practice of the 2012 season on Monday morning.

Lucas Aulbach

When WKU suited up and hit the field for the first time in months on Monday morning, everyone on the team shared the same goal:

“Get better,” senior defensive end Quanterus Smith said. “We’re just looking to execute better, play faster and just get better.”

The Toppers’ 2012 opener against Austin Peay isn’t for another 165 days, but WKU is advancing through the stages of getting ready for the season.

Head Coach Willie Taggart said he could already see his team’s commitment to getting better.

“Our guys, the way they come to work, you don’t hear anybody complaining, moaning. They just come out here ready to go,” he said. “Sometimes they come to me and say, ‘Coach, you don’t look like you’re ready,’ and that’s a first.”

Smith said it’s good to see everyone on the team believing in their potential.

“It’s a nice look for the team,” he said. “It just feels good and nice to know that everybody’s buying in, and we’re going to get it done.”

Part of the excitement comes from the way the team finished last season. The Toppers won seven of their last eight games to finish second in the Sun Belt Conference in 2011, finishing 7-1 in league play and 7-5 overall.

Yet WKU was one of two bowl-eligible schools that did not receive an invitation to a bowl game.

Senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes said a bowl berth would be a “reward” for a great regular season.

“Last year, it didn’t seem like we got no reward for it, so our mindset is to try and get one,” he said.

The spring practice period is the first opportunity for the Toppers to get together and practice on the field for the 2012 season. The team will meet 15 times over the course of the period, leading up to the Red-White Game, a public intrasquad scrimmage, on April 14.

WKU had previously participated in conditioning during the winter. Taggart said he had 100 percent attendance from the team for the conditioning for the first time in his coaching career.

The stakes in the spring are higher though. Taggart said much of the starting lineup for the upcoming season, which begins with the Sept. 1 home game against the Governors, will be determined by how players perform over the course of the month.

“The way we’re going to do spring ball — it’s going to be a moving depth chart,” he said. “Guys aren’t going to go through and think they’re going to have a starting job. As coaches, we’re going to go ahead and grade every practice, and if a guy doesn’t practice well, he’s going to move down the depth chart. We’re going to keep it competitive.”

The first practice of the season saw some key players return to the field for the Toppers. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Doughty, who tore his ACL against Indiana State on Sept. 17, and sophomore wide receiver Willie McNeal, who tore his ACL in spring practice last season, were both on the field taking reps on Monday.

Quarterback Damarcus Smith, a former four-star recruit from Louisville Seneca High School and Central Florida signee, is also now eligible for practice and did so on Monday.

Senior wide receiver Marcus Vasquez was not on the field. Vasquez tore his ACL during the Indiana State game and re-injured his leg while rehabbing it this winter.

WKU’s success last season breathed new hope into the program, which had recently floundered since moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2007. Taggart said his team should be able to build on that success in 2012.

“Guys understand what we’re doing now, and they understand that it’s their job,” he said. “They don’t actually get paid physically, but it’s their job, and they’ve got to take control of their job.”