Bowling Green, Ky. — A new era in Western Kentucky University football began Monday night when the program held its first preseason practice as a transitional NCAA I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) squad at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium, but it was business as usual for the Hilltoppers.
“Old era, new era, it doesn’t really matter,” said fifth-year head coach David Elson. “The first day of practice is the first day of practice. We were excited — I’ve never seen a bunch of guys out there so early ready to get going — and there was a lot of youth on the field since more than 60 percent of our players have either three or four years of eligibility remaining. We made mistakes, but we made them at full speed.
“You get to see some athleticism from your skill guys and your newcomers. But, ultimately it really comes down to Wednesday, Thursday and Friday when you get the pads on.
“All in all it was a really productive first day.”
In talking about the tempo of the opening practice session, Elson cited the work of director of strength and conditioning Jim Nowell and his staff in preparing the players since the end of spring drills. Every returning player who is not injured passed the team’s conditioning test, and all but four freshmen — who were not on campus the entire summer — passed as well.
Another benefit is the number of players WKU has in preseason camp. With 14 more individuals than previous years, Elson noted that the field was more crowded, but he and his staff still ran the same drills as prior seasons. The main difference was in the number of plays the team ran in 7-on-7 drills, and in the decision to run more snaps with the third team in the last drills with a full squad on the field.
Elson also credited his assistants and the players for the increased work on opening day. “Our coaches did a good job of organizing and being prepared, and the guys paid attention and understand what we wanted to get done. Plus, there was a little pep in everybody’s step — if we can keep the tempo up consistently I think we will be on to something.”
The additional players also have put each individual on notice that there should be more battles for playing time than in years past.
“Competition brings out the best in all of us,” said Elson. “You could see it out there today. We have some talent on this football team — they’re young — but there are guys that are going to be scratching and clawing to get on that plane to Florida.”
The Toppers open the season Sept. 1 at defending national champion Florida.
“We’re focusing on preseason camp, and I’ve talked to our players about that,” Elson stated. “There is a certain time that we will say that camp is over and it’s time to turn the page and begin our preparation for Florida. The good thing is that we’re doing some things offensively that is similar to UF, so there will be some carry over.
“They are excited about that first game, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But, we have to make sure that we are learning and improving at what we do.”
The biggest difference that Elson saw in the opening day of practice compared to previous years was the speed of the team. “I saw some young wide receivers that will really be able to help us, and some young running backs that are going to be able to contribute as well. I’m really excited about the weapons we have on offense, now the challenge is going to be spreading the ball around.
“I think we will see on film that we have some athletes on this team. Now we have to coach them and get them to understand their role.”
Another advantage to the team’s speed and the tempo of the opening practice is that Elson hopes it will help the team when it takes the field for the opening contest.
“When the ball is kicked off on Sept. 1, we want the players to say this is easy, this is a slower pace than what we’re used to. You try to make it tough like it will be on game day, and then they can go out and just play.”
The Hilltoppers will practice again Tuesday at 6 p.m. (CDT).