CRAWFORD | Facing big debut, Petrino has been here before
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Bobby Petrino has been here before. Get used to that theme. You're going to hear a lot of it over the next month.
The new Western Kentucky University coach has prepared for a season-opener against the University of Kentucky. Four times, in fact, he has done that without a career loss.
He has faced first-year head coaches in the opener, like UK's Mark Stoops.
So much the same. So much different. Petrino took the podium at Sun Belt Conference Media Day on Monday in New Orleans as the coach of a team picked to finish fourth in that league -- and loving every minute of it.
"I'm enjoying coaching as much as I ever have," Petrino told reporters in New Orleans Monday.
He has answered, or come as close to answering as he's going to, any lingering questions over his unplanned sabbatical from college football, the result of his actions at Arkansas. Now he can turn his attention to football, and he realizes he has a golden opportunity in the season's first two games, against Kentucky in Nashville on August 31 and at Tennessee the following Saturday. He's 5-1 combined against those two programs, but two wins this season would vault WKU into the national conversation pretty quickly.
"Our players are looking forward to it," Petrino said. "We returned a lot of players from last year's team that did very well and reached the first bowl in school history. Our defense -- secondary and linebackers -- and on offense our offensive line and running backs and tight ends (have a lot of experience) so we're certainly going to have to play to our strengths to win those first two games."
When he talks about playing to his strengths, he's primarily talking about Antonio Andrews on offense. The senior led WKU -- and the nation -- in all-purpose yards last season with 3,161 yards, making him only the second player in NCAA history to eclipse the 3,000-yard mark. He rushed for a school-record 1,728 of those with 15 touchdowns, but also showed he can be a receiver out of the backfield while returning kicks.
"No question, we need to run the offense through Antonio," Petrino said. "He does a great job running the football, great vision and instincts, has tremendous hands and is a great route runner. I think the thing that impresses me as much as anything though is his ability to return punts and kickoffs. He goes back there and can catch any punt you put out there and make yards after he catches it. So he just gives us a lot of things we can do with him."
But Petrino's offense is no one-man show. He likes to line up in formations with two tight ends and make the defense guess whether he's going to pound it or throw it. He should be able to do that this year with Elizabethtown product Mitchell Henry and sophomore Tyler Higbee back at the position.
The big offensive question for Petrino is a quarterback, where junior Brandon Doughty emerged from spring practice as the leader, though Petrino wants to take a look at a couple of newcomers once camp starts.
"Brandon came out of spring ahead of everybody else," Petrino said. "He did a nice job of learning the offense and doing what we asked him to do. He can throw the ball and deliver it where we want it on time. He'll get some competition from some incoming guys. Nelson Fishback is a very talented guy from Butte Community College. He can not only throw the ball but run with it. And we'll have a young quarterback (Todd Porter) from O'Fallon, Ill., who can throw and run it."
For Petrino, getting the right QB will be a major emphasis of the fall workouts. He'll go with whoever can make the right reads and run the offense best, but he'd like to have someone who can make plays with his arm and his feet.
"Our philosophy is that we want to be able to throw the ball when we want to so that we can throw when we have to," Petrino said.
He'll also need to identify some receivers who can make plays, but likes the experience and athleticism on his offensive front. "That's going to be a strength of our team," he said.
Another strength is the defensive secondary. In particular he has a couple of playmakers: Linebacker Andrew Jackson and safety Jonathan Dowling.
Of Jackson, Petrino said, "He's a really good football player. He's big and fast and really talented, but what impresses me as much as anything is his knowledge of the game. He really understands offenses and what they want to do."
Dowling was highly sought-after out of high school and wound up signing with Urban Meyer and Florida. He was kicked off the team there, however, because of what he termed personal issues with position coach Chuck Heater. He picked WKU over a host of bigger-name suitors because of then-head coach Willie Taggart. Now a senior in Bowling Green, he's a Thorpe Award candidate coming off a junior season in which he had a team-best six interceptions, which tied him for fifth nationally.
"Jonathan's a real ball hawk," Petrino said. "He understands what quarterbacks are doing and reads plays well. He should have a chance to make a lot of plays for us."
For Petrino, the challenge is putting it all together. But it's a challenge he welcomes after a year of off-the-field drama.
It's a new place, with new players. But Petrino has been here before.
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