Smoother sailing for Tops in year two under Taggart

Sophomore wide receiver Jamarielle Brown (right) shares a moment with sophomore tight end Jim Murphree and other teammates during a water break in the Toppers’ Monday afternoon spring practice.

Emily Patton

After the Toppers concluded their first spring practice Monday, Head Coach Willie Taggart pointed out the gray sprinkled throughout his beard.

The 34-year-old, in his second season as WKU’s head coach, said the difference between this year and last will be in the lack of gray added.

“You see, this gray hair I have is from last year, and it just won’t go away,” Taggart said. “It’s night and day. Guys know what to expect now. They know how we want to practice and know what we’re looking for. They are more confident now.”

At the start of practice last year, the objective for the coach was to get players into shape, which delayed their learning WKU’s new West Coast offense and 4-3 defense.

But Taggart said because of players preparing on their own over the offseason, the Toppers have a jump already on the team he brought into spring camp in 2010.

“Guys have been doing a good job,” Taggart said. “I told them I don’t want any more gray hair. I’m still a young guy. I tell them to look out for me.”

There are 81 players on the roster for spring practice, including 20 starters and 43 letter-winners returning from last fall.

Taggart also doesn’t have to help players overcome the mental hump of entering a season with a hefty losing streak like he did last spring, having won two games in his first season. 

Last year’s health struggles for junior tight end Jack Doyle and sophomore wide receiver Courtney Dalcourt — who battled neck and knee injuries, respectively — also seem to be on the mending side.

It’s all culminating into a positive mental attitude Taggart said players are bringing to the field.

“The beauty of it all is the guys came out and were really working and really trying,” Taggart said. “When guys are giving you 110 percent effort, you feel good as a coach knowing that things are going in the right direction.”

Senior defensive end Jared Clendenin said having a new defensive coordinator in Lance Guidry is like being a freshman again.

“We have no choice but to understand the expectations,” Clendenin said. “We refuse to go back to the way it was last year and the year before that.”

In addition to Guidry, the Toppers have added Zach Azzanni, who has taken over as offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, and Alonzo Hampton, who is serving as the new defensive backs coach.

But the transition with the new staff hasn’t been much different for senior running back Bobby Rainey.

“I don’t think there were many differences,” Rainey said. “I’ve been experienced with football and the new offense. I’ve got it from last year. Now it’s just about mastering it.”

The Toppers will practice every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday for the first three weeks of the spring schedule, and then Tuesday and Thursday during the week prior to the spring game on April 16.

Both Clendenin and Rainey said they’re not treating spring like the start of the year, but as its own four-week season.

“What’s going to define us is how much we keep it going, and not how we work on just one day,” Rainey said. “We’ve been talking about this since the last game was over.”