Bowling Green, Ky. - The pads are popping, the whistles are blowing and the sweat is definitely flowing at WKU football practice this week.
While the aroma of hot grass and 103 hard-working football players may not be pleasant, there's something else in the air that has Willie Taggart and Co. in high spirits.... Optimism.
And not just in WKU camp, but in the Bowling Green community.
"It's been amazing" said senior offensive lineman Adam Smith. "You go out in the community and you'll be eating dinner and people come up to us and are telling us how excited they are for the season. That's something that didn't used to happen."
Smith is one of many of WKU upperclassmen who have helped transition the Hilltoppers from an Football Championship Series team into a Football Bowl Subdivision team. His 34 games started are the most of any WKU player entering the 2012 season. The first 24 of Smith's 26 starts were Hilltopper losses but in 2011 things took a drastic turn as WKU closed the season with a 7-1 record after an 0-4 start.
Smith attributes most of the transformation to head coach Willie Taggart, who is entering his third year on the Hill.
"It's been amazing to watch him turn this program around," said Smith. "The way that guys respect him, the way the guys follow him, it's just a great thing to see."
Offensive line coach Walt Wells is entering his 10th season at WKU and he also feels the positive energy around the program.
"You can definitely tell there is optimism in the air," said Wells. "You can tell it within our kids, within our community and within our campus. That's a great thing, but we've got to go out and earn it this year. Last year is over."
A new year, a clean slate and no sense of entitlement after a solid 2011 season are some of the many messages being delivered from Hilltopper coaches during the offseason. While many key pieces return to the WKU lineup, losses like All-American running back Bobby Rainey, All-Sun Belt Conference left tackle Wes Jeffries and defensive end Jared Clendeninleave production gaps that must be filled.
"The first thing I told these guys is that they aren't a 7-5 or 7-1 team anymore," said Taggart. "This is a totally new ball club. It's on us to determine who we're going to be as a 2012 program."
Taggart inherited a team in 2009 that had just suffered an 0-12 season in its first year as an FBS program and an overall 20-game losing streak. After ringing in 23 three-star recruits and winning nine games during his short tenure, Taggart has instilled confidence and depth in his squad.
"It's night and day from when I first got here. It's completely different," said Smith. "The leaders are leading and the younger guys are stepping up, following and making plays."
Taggart said the biggest difference between his first year and now is the execution of little things in practice. Players know where to go, players know how hard they're supposed to work and they understand what Taggart expects out of them at each and every practice.
Buying into Taggart's system has brought a new energy to the Hilltoppers, something he often references as "juice." As for Wells, he calls it confidence.
"They believe in themselves," said Wells. "Their confidence is there and it's not a cockiness either. And that's a very good thing. They're out playing hard, practicing hard and they're hungry."
WKU has worked harder than they ever have before, making it the best offseason they've ever had Taggart said Tuesday. After finishing 7-5 last season, the Hilltoppers were the only team at the FBS level with a winning record not to be selected to a bowl. That has been the fuel for the offseason preparation, but Taggart isn't making any excuses.
"Our guys understand no one is going to give us anything. We've got to go out and take it ourselves," he said. "We've got to do that by work. The guys have taken that approach and they know we don't have the respect we feel like we deserve."
Smith believes that the hard work of the Hilltoppers will help them accomplish their goals of winning the Sun Belt, going to a bowl game and "doing everything we fell short of last year."
There is always pressure on a football program to win games, but the expectations have risen dramatically for WKU. The attitude is no longer win some games, but instead to win the Sun Belt Conference, thus landing a bowl bid.
"Our guys love the expectation. We haven't had that around here," said Taggart. "That's a big sign of improvement in our program that people are expecting us to win. Now we've got to take care of business."