COLUMN: Bowl snub drives WKU offseason

Brad Stephens

There wasn’t a ton of buzz around WKU football spring practice last year.

The Toppers went into the 2011 spring after going 2-10 in 2010 in their first season under Head Coach Willie Taggart, making their record 4-32 since 2008.

Kawaun Jakes was having to fight to keep his starting quarterback job after a pedestrian 2010 season.

The team’s most explosive playmaker, wide receiver Willie McNeal, was lost for the year after tearing up his knee early in spring practice.

And the defense was having to learn the system of new coordinator Lance Guidry, who took over when Clint Bowen packed his bags for Sun Belt Conference rival North Texas.

It’s a night-and-day contrast to the state of the team which took to the spring practice field for its first practice on Monday.

Jakes comes into the spring a returning starter from a team which went 7-5 in 2011. The quarterback job is firmly in his hands.

McNeal is 100 percent healthy, running routes and catching passes with ease.

And the defense, one of the Sun Belt’s best in 2011, returns several key contributors and now has the full-time services of sophomore safety Jonathan Dowling, a Florida transfer and former blue-chip recruit.

All in all, everyone in the locker rooms and coaches’ offices of Houchens-Smith Stadium is feeling pretty optimistic these days.

But for WKU to really get much out of spring practice, and the offseason overall, the Toppers need a little motivational kick in the pants.

And for that, they need only look to Dec. 4, the day last season’s bowl schedule was released.

72 teams were eligible. Two teams were left out. WKU was one of those on the outside looking in.

Players have used that as fuel for offseason workouts, which Head Coach Willie Taggart said was attended by 100 percent of his team.

“After last year we’re not going to make any excuses,” Taggart said.

The Toppers could’ve made a lot of excuses after the way last year ended.

They had an excellent year by their recent standards, finishing the season winners of seven of their last eight games.

But because of circumstances completely out of their control, they were stuck at home this winter watching teams they beat (Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette) and teams they could’ve beat, on TV.

 WKU players and coaches had no control over bowl contracts, which the team and its fans learned are often dictated by conference and TV politics as much as they are on-field performance.

What the Toppers can control is how they use this spring practice period to improve and prepare to accomplish the one feat that will ensure themselves a bowl berth: a Sun Belt championship.

“We didn’t succeed, basically, because we didn’t go to a bowl game,” Jakes said. “I think everybody’s mindset is to work harder. Every day it’s grind — every day.”

If WKU sticks to that motto this spring, they may be the ones bowling at the end.