Young WKU receiving corps growing in fall camp

Wide receiver Marcus Vasquez, here diving for a catch last season against North Texas, is the only actice receiver returning to the team to have caught double double digit passes last season.

Brad Stephens

WKU fans will likely be glancing at game programs early in the 2011 season, trying to figure out the names of the team’s wide receivers.

Sophomore Willie McNeal, the Toppers’ leading receiver in 2010, tore an anterior cruciate ligament during spring practice and isn’t likely to return this season.

That leaves junior Marcus Vasquez as the only active WKU receiver that recorded double-digit catches a year ago.

Vasquez said there’s been an adjustment period for the new players, but that they’re progressing well.

“It’s new for them,” he said. “We’re putting in everything in camp in a short period of time. At first, they had trouble getting the plays and learning the formations…but they’ve been coming along and they’ve proven that they can play with us.”

Vasquez has worn a yellow “non-contact” jersey throughout fall camp after suffering a broken collarbone last season and is expected to be the team’s No. 1 option at wideout.

But whoever will start alongside him when the Toppers play their season opener in two weeks against Kentucky remains to be seen.

Sophomore Courtney Dalcourt , a converted quarterback, will be one option for the spot. Head Coach Willie Taggart also mentioned freshmen Boe Brand and Joel German as having strong camps.

First-year offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Zach Azzani said the coaching staff is looking for wideouts that will display “the best technique in the country” and “play with a hard edge.”

“We’re going to stir up this group in two-a-days here, throw them all in a pot, stir them up and see who rises to the top,” Azzani said before practice Thursday. “We don’t have to be Jerry Rice out there or Chad Johnson, we just need to be solid receivers who can make possession catches and every once in awhile take the top off just enough to take the pressure off the run game.”

With WKU bringing back big-play running backs in senior Bobby Rainey and sophomore Antonio Andrews, Azzani said the receivers’ abilities to block downfield will be a heavy factor in determining playing time.

Azzani praised the downfield blocking efforts of sophomores Andrew Pettijohn, Jamarielle Brown and Neil Wilson, calling them “pit bulls.”

Taggart agreed, saying blocking efforts from wide receivers would be a key to Rainey having another big year in the rushing game.

“A lot of times when you see Bobby break those big runs it’s because those receivers are blocking throughout the entire play,” Taggart said. “Our guys have been doing a pretty good job of that.”

With the Toppers’ ground game success in 2010, opponents may bring safeties up in the box to clog up running lanes for Rainey and Andrews. Those defensive schemes would likely leave cornerbacks locked in man coverage one-on-one with Topper receivers, a prospect that excited Dalcourt.

“Other teams are going to be expecting the run and we can surprise them with a pretty good passing game this year,” Dalcourt said.

Taggart said he has been pleased with the mental improvements from the young receivers.

He emphasized the importance of the chemistry between them and junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes.

“If Kawaun knows and the receiver doesn’t it won’t work, and vice versa, they have to know where each other is going to be,” Taggart said. “And the only way they can get that is to continue to work at it and do it over and over…and over and over again.”

Helping the chemistry between Jakes and the receivers is that both Vasquez and Dalcourt started their WKU careers as quarterbacks before moving to wide receiver.

Vasquez made the switch during the 2009 season, and this will be Dalcourt’s first full season as a receiver.

Vasquez expressed confidence in Dalcourt’s ability to perform well as a receiver.

“He knows he’s got to catch the ball. He knows what this team needs from him,” Vasquez said. “He’s coming out here and balling everyday so the transition doesn’t seem too hard for him.”

WKU’s receivers will look to improve upon a passing game that averaged 142 yards per game and a 49 percent completion rate in Sun Belt Conference play a season ago.

The Toppers were last in the league in both categories.

Taggart said the receivers must improve this season in order to balance the offense.

“We have the talent at receiver to take some of the pressure off Bobby,” Taggart said. “We have to do it.”

Vasquez agreed and said there’s no ceiling for this year’s receiving corps.

“We can be the best in the conference,” Vasquez said. “And that’s what we’re going to be.”