Tops say they’re still playing for the present at Tuesday’s football practice

Zach Greenwell

Tuesday was WKU’s first chance to get back to work on strengthening its offense, which the Toppers are trying to do without their two best receivers.

Sophomore receiver Marcus Vasquez was pacing the sidelines at Tuesday’s practice with his arm in a sling after suffering a broken collarbone against Florida Atlantic last weekend. Sophomore tight end Jack Doyle was in full pads Tuesday but hasn’t played in two weeks.

That’s been two big blows for WKU, but Mike Sanford, quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, said the show must go on.

“All we can focus on is what we have, and that’s it,” Sanford said. “As people put the game plan together, all we can do is try to put the pieces together. We can’t worry about what’s in the past, what we don’t have, or what we’re going to add … in recruiting. We’ve got to play with what we have.

“We have guys, that if you look through the course of the year, made plays that are healthy right now, and we need more guys to emerge.”

Freshman receiver Willie McNeal will continue to start in one of the receiver slots, but the one vacated by Vasquez is up for grabs.

The top two contenders would appear to be sophomore Dexter Haynes and senior Quinterrance Cooper.

Haynes has just three catches this season, but one of them was a 53-yard touchdown catch.

“You hope Dexter can step up just like the other guys,” Head Coach Willie Taggart said. “We’re going to find the guys that are going to practice well and do what we ask them to do from a route-running concept. Those are the guys we’re going to play because those are the guys that are going to give us a chance to win.”

After last Saturday’s 17-16 loss to Florida Atlantic, Taggart said he received text messages from several young players telling him they’re ready to step up.

Taggart said his first reaction was, “Where were you before?” But the more he thought about it, he said he realized he’d rather have the young players come around late than never.

“You only get one time to make a first impression,” he said. “A lot of guys have a chance to do that now and make a great one.”

Taggart fielded several questions at Monday’s media luncheon about sophomore Kawaun Jakes’ poor performance against FAU.

But it was Sanford that spoke about the passing game Tuesday, namely Jakes and the new West Coast offense.

“A lot of times, especially in the passing game — with our system — it’s all about rhythm,” Sanford said. “When we get a little bit out of rhythm, which we have, it kind of spirals a little bit. Every single one of our players here is new in the system, and we’re playing with a quarterback that’s new in the system.”

Jakes completed just 8-of-24 passes against FAU for 70 yards.

Sanford, who played quarterback at Boise State, said he understands that everyone looks to the position for answers. But he said he’s also used his experience to tell Jakes that it doesn’t all fall on him.

“You’ve got to understand you’re the focal point of criticism,” he said. “That’s just part of it, but the good news is that myself and Kawaun — we’re not Internet guys. That’s stuff’s not going to make us better. It’s all of us. It’s me, it’s our receivers, tight ends, our line — it’s everybody.

“When things go well, everybody’s out at the airport greeting us and patting us on the backs and giving us player of the week honors. When things go bad, everybody’s calling for the quarterback. That’s the nature.”

WKU travels to Arkansas State this weekend. Although the team has lost some depth at key positions, Taggart said being in every Sun Belt Conference ballgame should be enough to make the remaining players believe they’re good enough to win.

“I think these last three games can jump-start a lot of things, and more importantly, it can show our guys that we can do it now,” he said. “You hear a lot of people say, ‘You’ll be all right once you get your guys in.’ I’ve got my guys here. We can do it now … and we’ve just got to get over the hump.”