FOOTBALL: Champion Hilltoppers back at work

J. Michael Moore

By J. Michael Moore

Herald reporter

Familiar sounds filled L.T. Smith Stadium Saturday.

Pads clacked and helmets collided.

Spring football practice has officially begun.

The Hilltoppers had their third practice of the spring Saturday afternoon, the first to feature full-contact drills.

New head coach David Elson was impressed, even though his team has rust to knock off and a tweaked offensive system to install.

“I really liked our intensity,” Elson said. “It’s good to see we’re doing what we normally do.”

Western practiced again last night. Fifteen practices are scheduled for April, with the Red-White game set for April 26.

The Toppers will take the field again tomorrow afternoon from 3-5 p.m.

Saturday’s workout featured individual and team drills. Elson said he is looking for individual improvement first.

Elson sees the biggest competitions emerging at running back and quarterback after the departure of All-Gateway Conference players Jon Frazier and Jason Michael.

The increased scrutiny on offense has forced Elson away from his comfort zone. He spent most of Saturday’s practice with quarterbacks, not with the defense, a squad he helped coach for seven seasons.

The quarterback battle will likely be one of the most intense.

Freshman Alex Dukes is recovering from surgery and is not practicing, leaving seniors Perez Smith and Casey Rooney to take all the snaps.

Smith and Rooney both transferred to Western to play quarterback, but found themselves in different positions last season.

Rooney played wide receiver, making several memorable catches, including one near the goal line to set up a game-winning score against Georgia Southern during last year’s playoff run.

More quarterbacks are expected in the fall when recruits Ryan Joyner and Sam Sexton arrive on campus.

Joyner, a Louisville native, led St. Xavier High School to a 10-3 finish last season, earning all-district and all-county honors.

Sexton threw for 1,049 yards and 13 touchdowns at Pulaski Southwestern High in Somerset last season. He added another 15 touchdowns and 1,087 yards on the ground.

None of Western’s quarterbacks have substantial experience in a major college football game.

“We’re going to put these guys in as many game situations as we possibly can … put them in intense, live situations,” Elson said.

Some of Western’s defensive players are working with a new coach. Mike Dietzel, who was hired last week, is taking over Elson’s responsibilities with defensive backs and is coaching special teams.

Sophomore safety Teco Dickerson, who had one of two interceptions in Saturday’s practice, said he likes the new coach, but also misses Elson’s guidance.

“I do miss (Elson) being around, but (Dietzel) knows what’s going on,” Dickerson said.

The defense dominated the offense in several drills during Saturday’s practice.

Dickerson said the defense still leads the way.

“It’s always been like that,” he said. “Defense wins games.”

SUBHEAD: Schedule released

The 2003 Hilltopper football schedule was unveiled last Tuesday, revealing several notable match ups and an old favorite.

Western will open the season with three straight home games, beginning with NAIA Union (Ky.) on Aug. 28. The Toppers will take on NCAA Division II West Virginia Tech the following week before hosting cross-state rival Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 20.

Elson likes the schedule, especially the three consecutive home games before a trip to Southeastern Conference and Division I-A power Auburn on Sept. 27.

“I like the way it’s set up,” Elson said. “Being at home the first three weeks in front of our fans is going to be nice.”

Western will have six home games this season, including Gateway Conference games against Southwest Missouri State, a Homecoming date with Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa.

The Toppers will play conference rivals Western Illinois, Illinois State, Indiana State and Youngstown State on the road.

The Division I-AA playoffs are set to begin Nov. 29, with the national championship game on Dec. 19.

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]