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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.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Former University of Kentucky football player and assistant coach Mike Cassity has been battling cancer, but Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino said Wednesday he is “doing well” now.
Cassity was defensive coordinator under Petrino at Louisville and the two were reunited this year after Petrino took over at Western and Cassity lost his job at UK when coach Joker Phillips and his staff were fired.
“He had a battle with cancer and fought through it,” said Petrino. “He is doing very well. He is working half a day right now.
“He has beat the battle and will get better and better. He is a great coach and tremendous recruiter, and he is getting better.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
LOUISVILLE — He had a smile on his face and a message to sell about Western Kentucky football.
“It’s great to be back in Louisville. I remember standing here a few years back and speaking. It’s awesome to see all the familiar faces, as well as new ones,” said Bobby Petrino.
The former Louisville coach was speaking to the Louisville Quarterback Club here Wednesday exactly one month from the day he’ll make his coaching debut for the Hilltoppers against Kentucky in Nashville on Aug. 31.
“I am extremely excited about what it is going on,” Petrino said. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but we have a lot of good players coming back.”
There was no mention of his controversial departure from Louisville to coach the Atlanta Falcons or his personal woes that cost him his job as head coach at Arkansas. There was no mention of other coaching jobs he pursued or whether he viewed Western Kentucky as a way to revive his career or a spot to stay a long time. Petrino took questions from the club members, but turned down an interview request after his talk.
He said the Hilltoppers have a “tough schedule” that starts with Kentucky and takes Western to Knoxville the next week to play Tennessee.
“I do get nervous thinking about the schedule, but it is also exciting,” Petrino said. “To open in Nashville against Kentucky is great for our program. It motivates our players all summer and winter. It should be a great game. We do not know a lot about them and they do not know a lot about us.”
Petrino said Western coaches have been studying Florida State’s defense and Texas Tech’s offense to get an idea what UK coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown might do Aug. 31.
“But we have to figure out how they will change and what they will do different because they will make changes,” Petrino said.
He said there is also one other unknown about the game on ESPN.
“In the first game, you do not really know what to expect from your own players. I do not know how they will react when things go well or do not go well,” Petrino said. “We will have to learn and get better as the game goes on. We have to do a great job on the sideline teaching and making adjustments during the game. We are going to have to be tough enough mentally and physically to win the game in the fourth quarter. But it will be kind of fun to see what we are all about.”
Western beat Kentucky in overtime in Lexington last year and had UK on the ropes in Nashville two years ago before the Cats won. Several Western supporters were at Wednesday’s lunch and one already wore her “Beat Kentucky” button.
Petrino made it clear he doesn’t intend to back down from UK, Louisville or anyone else in recruiting.
“You need to compete. We are going to recruit the state of Kentucky and then go south into Georgia, Alabama and Florida,” Petrino said. “I like to recruit there (the south) because of how players grow up. Those kids grow up knowing football. Being a college football player is hard. You have to be very dedicated. But we are not going to be afraid to recruit the best players.”
Arkansas is known for its quality football facilities, but Petrino said Western’s facilities could appeal to recruits now.
“I am amazed at the facilities we do have. We have an unbelievable weight room, as good a locker room as you can have, tremendous training room,” he said. “We have all kind office space and everything you need to coach and teach players. I would like to get an indoor practice facility in the future.”
While Western opens with two Southeastern Conference teams, Petrino said there are quality players at other schools like Western.
“The difference in the SEC is the size and speed of the defensive linemen and length of the corners. The defensive linemen are unbelievable and the corners are all 6-1, 6-2 and can play press man coverage. That’s the biggest challenge the SEC presents for offenses they face,” he said.
HOOVER, Ala. — Kentucky defensive tackle Donte Rumph says the Wildcats “owe Western a little something” after the way the Hilltoppers came into Commonwealth Stadium and beat UK last year 32-31 in overtime.
“It is a lot of pressure on it. We have to keep our composure and work and prepare because we owe Western a little something from last year. That is our focus right now to control what we can,” said Rumph of the Aug. 31 season opener in Nashville against Western. “Any first game, not just WKU, is big. You have to take it serious and not lay down because you may have a lesser opponent.”
Rumph wouldn’t talk about what he remembered from Western’s postgame celebration in 2012.
“It brings back some memories I don’t want. I just have to grind,” Rumph said.
Senior running back Raymond Sanders was a bit more blunt about the game.
“We want to beat those guys. We’re looking forward to Aug. 31, I can tell you that. Those guys were pretty disrespectful on our field, and disrespectful with some tweets and Facebook and some stuff,” Sanders said here Wednesday during the Southeastern Conference Media Days. “After the game, jumping and stomping on the field. It’s our field. You got to take pride in that. Just little things that they said. We’re just waiting until Aug. 31 and we’re going to let that talk.”
Rumph wouldn’t contradict Sanders, but he had a different view.
“That’s last year. We can’t dwell on last year,” Rumph said. “We are working hard to beat Western Kentucky this year. That is a little bit of revenge to seek, but we are excited for season to start on the right foot and start a new era with coach (Mark) Stoops. I am just anxious see how it turns out and go out and play. It’s not like Western was the only team to beat us last year. We have a lot of revenge to seek.”
Not only will the game at LP Field be the first in the Stoops’ era at UK, it will also be the first for new Western coach Bobby Petrino. The former Louisville coach was mentioned in connection with the Kentucky coach search after he lost his job at Arkansas before the Cats hired Stoops.
“I really do not know coach Petrino very well. I expect a very good team, good offensive mind,” Stoops said. “He’s had some great success. I’m sure they’re going to be very excited to play us. But we are, as well. That’s our first game of this new era of our program.
“We have an awful lot on the line. We can’t take anything for granted at Kentucky right now. We can’t just show up and beat anybody. We have to play very well. We have to play to the best of our abilities. That’s our job to be ready to play in that opener. It will be an exciting time for both of us.”
Linebacker Avery Williamson, UK’s top tackler last season, sees Western as a “huge opportunity” for Kentucky.
“They did a great job last year, so kudos go to them. They outplayed us,” Williamson said. “We’re just going to take it out on them this fall.”
Stoops wouldn’t back away from the feeling some have that Western could be the most important game of the season for him.
“I would agree with that certainly because it is our first game,” Stoops said. “It’s important because we’re doing an awful lot of work and the players are working hard, coaches are working hard, the fans are buying in, there’s a lot of momentum going right now. It’s our next game. It’s our first game. So it’s very important to us.
“Like any of our games, we’ll approach it as a one‑game season after that. I’m not hiding from the fact that the Western games are important to us.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky is going to have a lot of challenging games in Mark Stoops’ first season, but there will be no more intriguing game than the season opener in Nashville against Western Kentucky and new coach Bobby Petrino.
The Hilltoppers will be trying to beat UK for a second straight season — a huge no-no for a SEC team. And Petrino will be trying to make a statement immediately that Kentucky and other schools made a mistake by not hiring him.
Petrino named his coaching staff this week and the assistants have a wealth of football experience, both as players and as coaches. Combined, the seven assistants have over 100 years of combined collegiate coaching experience, which include coaching stints at schools such as Arkansas, Baylor, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Louisville, Marshall, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Wisconsin. Together, the seven announced assistants have coached in a combined 14 bowl games, including four BCS bowl games.
Florida State’s defense led the country with 236.3 yards allowed per game before falling to Florida Saturday. He is a finalist for the national defensive coordinator of the year. He has no head coaching experience,
Stoops has never been a head coach, but he has held many jobs throughout college football. He has coached defensive backs at South Florida, Miami and Wyoming and been defensive coordinator at Houston. He was defensive coordinator at Arizona from 2004-09 before moving to Florida State.
Last season his Seminoles only allowed 15.1 per game (4th nationally), in 2010 they allowed 19.6 (20th), and in 2009 they surrendered 30.0 (94th).
He certainly has a strong coaching bloodline. One brother, Bob, is the head coach at Oklahoma. Another brother, Mike, is the former head coach at Arizona. A third brother, Ron Jr., is an assistant coach at Youngstown State.
— Conference realignment could be UK’s best friend in pursuing Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. He may or may not have said no to UK — Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart said Saturday that no one has been offered the job — but with the Big East continuing to lose teams it appears Jones may now have interest in UK if enough money is involved.
— Several media members at Tennessee Saturday indicated that they did still believe Phil Fulmer was on UK’s radar. The former Tennessee coach has been out of coaching four years, but knows Barnhart well. I was also told that Fulmer and UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders are still friends even though Fulmer fired Sanders at UT. Remember a few years ago Barnhart relied on Rich Brooks for guidance in a coaching search and ended up hiring him. Fulmer could well be a backup plan for Barnhart.
— Louisiana Tech Sonny Dykes seems to have dropped off the UK chart for some, but remember there has been contact with his agent. Don’t write him off yet?
— Bobby Petrino? The rumors continue, but several UK folks told me again Saturday that this is a move Barnhart will not make.
By LARRY VAUGHT
J.R. Greer of London knows numerous ex-Kentucky football players and often communicates with them as well as his former college roommate through Facebook.
That’s why Friday he thought he might have a little fun with them and posted a message that Bobby Petrino had agreed to become the next Kentucky football coach.
“If I could get any coach out there, I would get Petrino,” said Greer. “I go to every UK game and tailgate. I love Kentucky football. I just decided to post Petrino was getting the job and figured my friends would get all riled up and react. I never dreamed it would go outside my small network of friends.”
It did. And it did in a big way even before news broke Saturday that Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, who was considered UK’s primary target, had taken his name out of the Kentucky search.
Internet message boards spread the word about Petrino more so than any news about Jones. Radio talk shows spread the Petrino word.
Eventually Greer had to go on Facebook late Friday and post this message: “I want to apologize that earlier I wrote that Bobby Petrino would be our next coach. My post was in humor as most all my post are (if not pictures of family or friends). We support UK and the Big Blue Nation and trust Mitch Barnhart will make the best hire possible for UK.”
However, Greer admitted he “had hundreds of friend requests in a matter of minutes” with people hoping the news about Petrino was true. He even got a message from an assistant coach at a well-known program asking him to pass along his name to Petrino because he wanted to work on Petrino’s staff at Kentucky.
“That let me know fans not only deserved a quality football coach, but expected strong leadership from the UK administration and Mitch Barnhart,” Greer said. “I am just not sure Mitch Barnhart and the UK administration are doing enough to inform fans. Throw us a bone and let us know something.
“People were calling and sending me messages that they were praying for this (hiring Petrino). My little voice was not supposed to be heard this much. It just really steamrolled out of control. That’s why I had to apologize.”
Greer’s father is regarded as a major UK booster and his family has numerous season tickets to UK basketball and football.
“We have a close relationship with the athletics department at Kentucky. We want to stay friends and not raise a stink,” Greer said. “UK football is bigger than any fan or booster. We trust them to make the right hire.”
However, because Barnhart announced the firing of coach Joker Phillips three weeks ago via social media and with no press conference, Greer says that likely gave his comments about Petrino’s hiring more validity than they should have got.
“The thing is this hire could have a big impact on Mitch’s future. I would have thought he might want to get some people together and see what fans, boosters, ex-players want in a coach,” Greer said. “If he chooses the wrong coach, UK football could spiral downward more than ever. We don’t want that.
“I think my thing with Petrino was driven by hope and fear. Hope because a lot of fans want Petrino and were hoping it was true. Fear was driven by people scared that Mitch is not going to make the right choice and he will hire the wrong guy. It was like people thought if they helped steamroll this Petrino news it might actually come true. But trust me, I never imagined it would become the huge deal it was.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
By LARRY VAUGHT
Folks at Vanderbilt must be feeling really good today because in the last two weeks the Commodores have drilled Kentucky and Tennessee and forced both schools to fire their coaches the day after the loss.
However, there’s one big difference in what Tennessee did Sunday when it released Derek Dooley compared to how Kentucky fired Joker Phillips.
Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart didn’t post a letter to fans on a website. Instead, he held a press conference to talk about his decision and what direction the coaching search would go. Dooley issued a statement.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart announced Phillips’ firing on the UK website and has yet to talk publicly about it as speculation continues to swirl about who the next coach might be. Phillips has met with media members five times since his firing and has been open, cordial and informative.
Dooley and Phillips have had about the same lack of success in their three years. Dooley was 15-21 at Tennessee and was 0-15 against top 25 teams. He lost 14 of his last 15 SEC games, including one at UK last year. The Vols must beat Kentucky on Saturday to avoid going winless in SEC play for the first time in school history. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will serve as Tennessee’s interim coach while Phillips will coach his final game after UK beat Samford last week and players carried Phillips off the field.
Tennessee will be looking for its fourth coach in six years. Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008, Lane Kiffin coached one year and then Dooley came from Louisiana Tech where he had a losing record and is gone after three years.
Hart said he probably wouldn’t use a search firm in choosing his next coach. Is Barnhart? We don’t know. He won’t tell us.
Hart said he considers previous head coaching experience “critically important.” Does Barnhart? We don’t know. He won’t tell us.
For those who say the Tennessee program is more attractive, remember the Tennessee football program is on probation until August 2015. The university’s athletic department posted a $3.98 million budget deficit for the last fiscal year and is paying buyouts to Fulmer, former athletics director Mike Hamilton, former basketball coach Bruce Pearl and former baseball coach Todd Raleigh. Now add another $5 million buyout for Dooley. That makes about $2.5 million for Phillips look like nothing.
Rumors swirled again Saturday that UK was close to a deal with Fulmer. On Sunday, speculation was that Cincinnati coach Butch Jones — who turned down a lucrative offer from Illinois last year — was offered the job.
What sales pitch is Barnhart using considering UK has had three straight losing seasons, attendance has dropped dramatically and the 2013 schedule is more difficult than the one this year? We don’t know. Barnhart won’t tell us.
What about Hart? What’s he selling at Tennessee?
“This is the ultimate challenge, which competitors embrace,” Hart said. “This is the ultimate challenge, for a football coach to come into this league. If you’re a competitor and you want to prove your worth, come into the Southeastern Conference. Come to the University of Tennessee. You’ll get that opportunity.”
Sounds like a possible sales pitch to Bobby Petrino to me.
Hopefully, Barnhart is saying the same — and more — to possible coaches even if Petrino, the former Louisville and Arkansas coach, is obviously not on his list.