NOTEBOOK: WKU football team gearing up for veteran Nebraska defense

Zach Greenwell

This story was originally published Aug. 27, 2010.

The WKU football team is well aware of the reputation that follows Nebraska’s defense around.

That’s why the Toppers are preaching patience as they prepare for what the eighth-ranked Cornhuskers will throw at them Sept. 4 in Lincoln, Neb.

“We just have to take what they give us,” said Mike Sanford, quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. “If they give us the run game, then we’re going to be able run the football. If they pack the box up, we’re going to go ahead and throw the ball a little bit. Based on what we saw last year, they’re a bend-but-don’t-break defense, but at the end of the day, they’re pretty sound against everything.

“They don’t have a whole lot of inconsistencies.”

Friday’s practice was WKU’s second to last of fall camp, and Head Coach Willie Taggart said he’d like to see more focus as the first game week approaches.

“Our guys are getting out and getting the look that they’re going to get on Saturday, but at the end of the day, when you get out there, it’s about winning one-on-one battles,” Taggart said. “We’re trying to get our guys to go out and understand what they’re going to get. They need to be comfortable when they get out there and not think as much.”

Nebraska finished last season ranked first in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering just over 10 points per game.

Although the star of that unit, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, is now playing in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, Sanford said the Huskers still have plenty of firepower left, especially where it interests him most as passing game coordinator — the secondary.

“The reality is that they were the No. 1 pass efficiency defense in college football last year,” Sanford said. “They’re very effective against the pass, and they have good defensive backs. They have 14 returning letter-winners in the defensive backfield, and they have five or six guys who’ve started games in the secondary. They’re very strong there, but the thing they do defensively is that they want you to play into their hands. They want you to throw the ball to them.

“They’re a turnover defense. They do it athletically, and they do it by being sound. We’ve just got to be patient and take opportunities as we get them.”

One of Nebraska’s favorite tendencies last year was to rely heavily on a nickel defense, essentially playing only one or two  linebackers with a bigger defensive backfield.

This allowed the Huskers to rely on their front line to stop the run game and swarm any ball thrown near the secondary.

Taggart said WKU will be working against the nickel some this week, although he’s been around coaching long enough to know you’ve got to plan broadly.

“We’re preparing for everthing they could do, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to be good at what we do,” Taggart said. “Nebraska’s Nebraska. They’re No. 8 for a reason, and we know it’s not going to be easy. But we’re going to show up. Say what you want to say, but it comes down to which guy takes care of his job. We want to be the best pursuit team, offensively and defensively — that’s what they do.

“If we can do that, we’ll have a chance. If we can’t, then we won’t.”

Taggart has Manatee on the mind

Taggart will have at least one connection to the Huskers when WKU heads to Lincoln in the form of former Nebraska great Tommie Frazier.

Frazier, who led the Huskers to back-to-back national championships at quarterback in 1994 and 1995, preceded Taggart at the position at Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla.

“Tommie was a phenomenal athlete,” Taggart said. “He was the real deal. He’s always been that way. Little League, then he got to high school, and he was always the man. Me growing up, I just wanted to be like that.”

Taggart was a sophomore at Manatee when Frazier was a senior. The Hurricanes went undefeated during Taggart’s freshman year, and the WKU coach became the first sophomore in school history to start a game — a district contest, no less — when Frazier went down injured.

Taggart said that was his first breakout moment at the school, and he even earned player-of-the-week honors after his first start.

“Oh, I took care of my business,” Taggart said, laughing.

Taggart went on to win a state championship as the starting quarterback his junior year, and Manatee finished as state runner-ups the following season.

“Going to Manatee High School and growing up in Manatee County, everyone wanted to go there,” Taggart said. “Everyone wanted to be a part of that great tradition, and everyone wanted to be the man. I was one of those kids growing up, loving Manatee High School.”

Taggart gets the chance to watch his former school — along with the rest of a national audience — as Manatee hosts Tampa (Fla.) Plant in a high-profile preseason game Friday night on ESPN, part of the network’s ESPN RISE High School kickoff.

Taggart’s not shy about still having love for his school, even busting out a joke about the team’s “Hurricane” mascot.

“I talked to (Manatee) coach (Joe) Kinnan earlier today and wished him the best of luck,” Taggart said. “I told him that I heard there was an F-5 hurricane going through Manatee County tonight, so he better watch out. Hopefully everybody’s taking shelter.”

Taggart’s already recruited Florida and the area around his hometown heavily, and said that having personal connections in those areas can only benefit WKU’s recruiting efforts down the road.

“People tend to help you out a lot more when they know you and they’re comfortable with you, so that helps us a lot down in Florida,” Taggart said. “I don’t think it helps us as much as people think, because Florida’s so recruited right now, but we’re trying to also get out to Georgia, Texas and all around. But it does help when you know some people and also have people on your staff who know some people down there.”

Andrews lines up at QB

Taggart said earlier in the week that former Fort Campbell standout quarterback Antonio Andrews would practice at running back for the foreseeable future, which made it even more surprising when the newest Topper lined up under center Friday.

Andrews worked mostly on keeper runs and option plays, but he did throw a few deep passes that Taggart said impressed him.

Taggart said Sanford told him that Andrews “could really throw the ball,” so the coaching staff decided to let him to take a few reps after the three quarterbacks got their snaps. It was a win-win for the team, Taggart said, as it allowed the defense to practice against Nebraska’s option offense as well give Andrews a chance at his old position.

“Part of it was Nebraska stuff — doing that and helping our defense out by giving them a good look, and part of it was just seeing what he can do,” Taggart said. “He played it in high school, and the way we do things around here is we’re going to let a guy play where he wants. If he shows that he can’t do it, we’ll move him elsewhere, but he’s so talented that he can play a lot of different positions for us.”

Andrews threw for 3,365 yards and 50 touchdowns and rushed for 3,368 yards and 56 scores during his career at Fort Campbell.

“I’m sure Andrews was happy about that too,” Taggart said. “We’ll see.”