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By LARRY VAUGHT
Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino spoke to the Louisville Quarterback Club Wednesday and said Western’s secondary should be good because it returns three cornerbacks and two safeties who “played a lot” last year.
“Defensively, we have a chance to be pretty good,” Petrino said as he looked ahead to Western’s season-opening game — and his Western debut after not coaching last year after personal problems led to him being fired at Arkansas — against Kentucky in Nashville Aug. 31.
He noted that junior linebacker Andrew Jackson, named CBS Sports’ Preseason Defensive Player of the Year for the Sun Belt Conference, led the Hilltoppers in tackles last year (122), forced fumbles (4) and quarterback hits (3) even though he weighed 272 pounds.
“Now we have got him down to 254 pounds. He is faster, quicker. He really knows how to play,” Petrino said. “He has great instincts. He can play both the pass and run.”
Jackson has been named to the preseason watch lists for the Rotary Lombardi Award, The Butkus Award, Bronko Nagurski Award and Bednarik Award. He led Western in tackles six games last year, making him Western’s leading tackler in 14 of the last 26 games he has played. His 17.5 tackles for loss last year ranked second on the team behind Quanterus Smith’s 18.5. Smith is now a rookie with the Denver Broncos.
“Our challenge on defense is replacing our front. Five guys that played last year all graduated. One (Smith) led the country in sacks,” Petrino said. “We have to rotate guys in and develop a front and find a couple of guys that can rush the passer. We need to get to the quarterback in a four-man rush. We got better as the spring went on, but we are still not where we need to be yet.”
He said the offensive strenth will be at running back where Antonio Andrews returns after rushing for 1,684 yards and 11 scores last year.
“He almost broke Barry Sanders’ (national) record last year for all-purpose yards. He can run and catch, but he can also return punts and kickoffs,” Petrino said. “He is very talented. But he is going to be pushed.”
Petrino likes the size of backup running backs Keyshawn Simpson (245 pounds) and Leon Allen.
“Keyshawn is very physical and will help us a lot in the fourth quarter. Allen just tested out as one of the strongest and fastest players on the team. He does not know how good he can be, but we are going to get him the ball a lot,” Petrino said.
He says Western has a “good group” of offensive linemen and tight ends, but no clear No. 1 quarterback.
Junior Brandon Doughty, who has thrown for only 113 yards and no scores, came out of spring practice No. 1.
“He is intelligent, coachable and can make the different throws. We need to put pressure on him to see how he reacts when things don’t go well,” the Western coach said.
Sophomore Demarcus Smith “is very talented” but Petrino said he “struggled” in spring practice. “He shows splashes of being a good quarterback but has a long way to go to be consistent,” Petrino said.
Western has two new quarterbacks — Nelson Fishback, a transfer from Butte Junior College, and Todd Porter, a true freshman.
“Remember that name (Fishback),” Petrino said. “He has a chance to be a pretty good player. He’s from the same junior college as (Green Bay Packers quarterback) Aaron Rogers. That’s a good system. He is a young man with a lot of confidence and leadership qualities. He will be in the mix (to start).
“Porter is 6-3 and is up to about 207 pounds now. He can really throw the ball and is a great athlete. He started three years in high school, which is something I look at, and has been in a lot of big high school games and was very successful. He’s in the mix, too.”
Petrino signed six true freshmen receivers — part of 34 new players he has on scholarship counting ones the staff added in January that counted toward the 2012 scholarship allotment — he hopes can help.
“We had a couple of guys in spring show they can make plays, but we need more,” Petrino said. “Out of our freshmen, a couple are fast, a couple have good size. We re going to need help right away with them. I am excited about their ability and talent. It’s just really how quick they adjust to coverages they’ll see. But we need them.”