Hilltoppers ready to step out of their comfort zone


By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer



BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) - David Elson inched to the front of the line, peered out the door at the earth 13,000 feet below and jumped.
The next few minutes were a blur of air, adrenaline and nausea.
Ask the Western Kentucky coach why he decided to jump out of an airplane with members of the school's ROTC at Fort Knox last spring, and he'll tell you he wanted to do something that would get him out of his comfort zone. Guess what? He loved it.
Good thing, because being out of his comfort zone is something Elson and the Hilltoppers will have to get used to as they begin their two-year journey from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).
Western Kentucky, which won the I-AA national title five years ago, will play as an independent over the next two seasons before becoming a full member of the Sun Belt Conference in 2009.
Moving up was a decision school administrators felt was necessary for a program trying to step out of the shadows of in state foes Louisville and Kentucky.
For the players, however, it meant giving up any hopes of a postseason the next two years and enduring the growing pains as the program learns to play the big boys on a level playing field.
Many of the team's seniors considered redshirting, and Elson held more than his fair share of heart-to-hearts with players who were wary of something they didn't sign up for when they joined the program years ago.
``It's tough because my goal coming into college was to win a championship,'' said senior cornerback Marion Rumph. ``Now we don't have that opportunity. But we came up with ways to find things we can achieve.''
Ultimately, only two seniors decided to sit out the season. And even with the postseason out of the picture, Elson and the players came up with a way to reach for the thing all players covet: a ring.
If the Hilltoppers can finish with at least seven wins, they'll each get a ring to commemorate the school's 12th consecutive (and hands down most difficult) winning season.
Just to bring the point home that they did indeed have something to play for, the team decided to put a mock-up picture of the ring in the training room as a reminder of what's at stake.
``We're the pioneers,'' said defensive tackle Chris Walker. ``We're treading new waters.''
Waters that are certain to get choppy at times. The Hilltoppers open the season on the road at defending national champion Florida. Other FBS opponents include Bowling Green and future Sun Belt rivals Middle Tennessee, North Texas and Troy.
``It's going to show us where we're at,'' said wide receiver Curtis Hamilton, a third-team All-American last year.
It's also going to show them how far they have to go. Some aggressive recruiting and economic wizardry allowed the Hilltoppers to offer 79 scholarships this year (up from 63 as allotted by Division I-AA members). That number should rise to the full complement of 85 scholarships next fall.
It means the Hilltoppers will have depth. Size and experience, however, will take awhile.
Yet Elson remains optimistic that adjustment period won't take very long.
``We've got to continue this winning tradition, beat a few folks we're not supposed to beat,'' Elson said.
To do it, Elson and new offensive coordinator Kevin Wright have installed the spread offense, much like the version West Virginia has used under coach Rich Rodriguez. Junior quarterback David Wolke, a transfer from Notre Dame, is the favorite to win the starting job, though Elson expects K.J. Black to also see time.
The defense, which struggled at times last year, will focus more on executing than trying too many exotic packages.
Yet the changes on the field, however, might not be as noticeable as the changes off it. L.T. Smith Stadium is undergoing a $37.5 million renovation that will expand capacity from 17,500 to 25,000 in time for the 2008 season.
There's a brand new scoreboard that will be partially operational in time for the home opener against West Virginia Tech on Sept. 8. Eventually there'll be a 20-foot-high berm that runs underneath it.
On the visiting sideline - which for years was simply a collection of benches - there'll be 7,500 seats, luxury boxes, a brand new locker room and a 10,000 square foot training center.
The artist's rendering of the renovated complex includes a stadium packed with fans. It might not be too far off. The school has already more than tripled its season-ticket base - from 1,800 to more than 6,000 - since announcing the move up.
It's a goal the program got to with the help from an initially reluctant source: the players. While Elson didn't ask the Hilltoppers to jump out of a plane to get out of their comfort zone, he did ask them to go door-to-door in the community offering season-ticket packages.
It made for a few awkward exchanges. Eventually, however, the players got the hang of it. Elson doesn't see why things on the field should be any different. ``We've got to do things that we've never done before,'' he said. ``We can't just continue and do things exactly the same way and expect things to go to the next level just because everybody says we're going I-A ... (it's) a great time to begin a new tradition.''