Bobby Petrino knows he's got plenty of talent to work with in his first year at Western Kentucky.
Inside linebacker Andrew Jackson, safety Jonathan Dowling, center Sean Conway and running back Antonio Andrews are all rated in the top 17 nationally at their respective positions in Phil Steele's preseason rankings, and the Toppers retained many more veteran players.
But even with all the returning experience and excitement about a new regime, Petrino explained to the press at WKU's annual media day that there's always room for improvement.
“It’s never where you want it," said the new head coach, when asked about the team's progress. "You are always striving for perfection and it’s never where you want it.
"There are good signs, though...The first thing that stands out is the condition our players came back in. Our players are much stronger, some guys are bigger, some are smaller and I feel like our speed has really increased. They had a great summer."
Jackson, widely regarded as one of the top five players at his position in college football, has already shed 10 pounds from the previous season, placing him at the perfect weight scouts want him at before entering the 2014 NFL Draft.
Petrino attributed WKU's strength staff, led by assistant coach Joe Miday, as the key to the player's quality offseason conditioning.
"Our strength and conditioning coaches did an excellent job with the team and our players worked really hard," he said. "They’re in great condition.
"The first four practices – when you go newcomers and veterans, it’s very hard on them. It’s a lot of reps and it’s a fast pace but I thought they did a nice job fighting through when they had fatigue. I’m really happy about our staff. They are doing a great job taking things from the meetings and on to the practice field."
While WKU retains seven starters on defense, and six more on offense, one position with a major question mark still remains.
Who will replace Kawaun Jakes as the starting quarterback?
Junior Brandon Doughty was voted in the preseason as a team captain, and seems he's earned the nod as frontrunner for now.
But redshirt freshman DaMarcus Smith, a former Elite 11 standout, has elevated his game quickly since the spring, according to Petrino.
"DaMarcus Smith has really improved," the head coach said. "When he came out of spring ball I thought it was going to take quite a bit for him to get into a position to play, but he is much better right now than he was all of spring.
"His understanding of the offense, his technique and his ability is really showing up."
"Brandon (Doughty) is doing a really nice job. He came out of spring ball and was the leader. He’s come back in great shape and condition. He’s still working hard at making the right decisions every play and his accuracy hasn’t been as good as it was in the spring. Some of that is expected because of the new wide receivers and the new guys he is working with."
"I have no real timetable (on naming a starter.) It will take care of itself and we will just keep working on a daily basis. We will keep putting pressure on them in practice and see how they handle that."
After defeating Kentucky 32-31 last year under previous head coach Willie Taggart, Petrino said WKU's players have been motivated all offseason for the rematch.
“I’m excited about it (the season opener)," he said. "I don’t know if you could have a better opener for us because it motivates you all winter long.
"It motivates you through spring ball and all summer. Our players are excited about it. It’s exciting for us to go play at LP Field and hopefully we will have a bunch of guys in red down there supporting us. It should be a great crowd, a great college football game."
WKU and Kentucky will kickoff on Aug. 31 at 6:00 p.m. CT.
Tickets can be purchased through the WKU Ticket Office in E.A. Diddle Arena in person, by phone at 1-800-5-BIG-RED or online via WKUSports.com.