WKU football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Hilltoppers, best players and season prediction.
The franchise quarterback is gone. But the hotshot head coach stayed put, so Western Kentucky remains highly optimistic about its direction in 2016 and beyond.
The Hilltoppers completed what they set out to do last season—sweeping the Conference USA schedule to win a league championship for the first time in 13 years. Now, the program is out to prove it can remain on top after the graduation of star QB Brandon Doughty.
Doughty left WKU with a 27-11 record and every school passing record. His departure will obviously be felt. That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that head coach Jeff Brohm is back for a third season after being courted by Power Five athletic directors.
Brohm has taken what Bobby Petrino—and Willie Taggart—started and he’s made it better. And ADs have been noticing. By going 12-2 in 2015, the Toppers earned their first national ranking, first title and first double-digit win total since joining the FBS seven years ago. And momentum is making WKU a more attractive destination for high school recruits and JUCO and graduate transfers.
If there’s a silver lining to the hole behind center, it’s that Brohm used to play the position and is a proven QB teacher. Ditto Jeff’s younger brother, Brian, an eight-year pro who was hired in February to coach the quarterbacks. Whoever succeeds Doughty, likely South Florida transfer Mike White now that vet Nelson Fishback is out for the year, will be surrounded by an abundance of skill position and O-line talent. Even if the offense regresses a bit in 2016, it’ll still be one of Conference USA’s highest scoring teams.
While the defense has not been Western Kentucky’s calling card, there’s legitimate hope that the unit will be faster than at any point in recent memory. Brohm has added a couple of valuable pieces from his alma mater, Louisville, in LB Keith Brown and DE Nick Dawson-Brents. And while the Toppers won’t necessarily win with D this fall, they can certainly boost the offense by creating more mayhem in the form of sacks and takeaways.
The defending Conference USA champs will spend this season looking to become repeat Conference USA champs. The leader of the offense may be gone, but the leader of the program returns for a third season. And Brohm has amassed enough talent on the Hill to overcome player losses, even ones the caliber of Doughty.
What You Need to Know About the Western Kentucky Offense
In 2015, only SEC opponents could stop the Hilltoppers, which averaged more than 50 points in the other dozen games. How much of a decline will there be now that star QB Brandon Doughty is trying to make an NFL roster? Western Kentucky plans to rely more on the backs, Anthony Wales, D’Andre Ferby and Leon Allen if he’s healthy enough to go.
But the development of Doughty’s heir, likely USF transfer Mike White, will go a long way to determining this team’s potential to keep rolling. Targets and protection won’t be stumbling blocks to success for the new hurler.
Led by Forrest Lamp, WKU will again be home to one of the cleanest blocking units among Group of Five teams. And while there are openings for receivers in 2016, last season’s most dangerous playmakers, Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, still have a year left. The staff hopes a few of the younger receivers, like Will Bush, can build on strong spring performances and that Wake Forest transfer Steve Donatell can fill the enormous tight end opening left Tyler Higbee’s graduation.
Biggest Key To The WKU Offense
A greater reliance on the ground game. Just because the Tops threw the ball 554 times a year ago does not mean they’ll repeat that attack plan in 2016. Jeff Brohm and his staff want to tailor the attack to their personnel. And with the loss of QB Brandon Doughty, as well as three of his top five receivers, and the abundance of quality backs, a more conservative approach will be employed. Additional touches will be given to Anthony Wales, D’Andre Ferby and Leon Allen if he can return to full health.
What You Need to Know About the Western Kentucky Defense
After yielding almost 40 points a game in 2014, the Hilltopper D made enormous strides under Nick Holt in 2015. But while WKU improved by almost every statistical measure, that success may be fleeting now that four senior defensive linemen, an all-league linebacker and both starting cornerbacks have graduated.
Western Kentucky is looking for reinforcements at each level, a pair of which came by way of Louisville. The team added two promising senior transfers, LB Keith Brown and DE Nick Dawson-Brents, to a front seven that already houses LB T.J. McCollum and DT Omarius Bryant, a riser with untapped potential. Still, the staff has work to do in the defensive backfield as well.
The safeties are in good hands with Branden Leston and Marcus Ward. But Joe Brown and De’Andre Simmons will need to step up as replacements for Wonderful Terry and Prince Charles Iworah to keep the secondary from being very vulnerable against decent passing quarterbacks.
Biggest Key To The WKU Defense
An injection of speed. The Hilltoppers were noticeably quicker in the spring, which the staff hopes will lead to improved overall results. The front seven got an immediate boost by way of Louisville, as DE Nick Dawson-Brents and Keith Brown elected to spend their final years of eligibility as Hilltoppers. Brown is a microcosm of the changing dynamic of Nick Holt’s D, getting from here to there as fast as any linebacker in Conference USA.
Western Kentucky Will Be Far Better If …
the increased defensive speed equals a spate of momentum-building plays. The Hilltoppers were prolific at creating turnovers in 2015, an underrated aspect of their title-winning campaign. Maintaining the takeaway trend, plus stirring up the number of sacks will be especially important if the offense is not as potent as it was the past two seasons with Brandon Doughty at the controls.
Best Offensive Player
Senior WR Taywan Taylor. Taylor thought about dipping his toe into NFL waters this season. Instead, he’ll remain in school, great news for an offense moving forward without its record-setting quarterback, two veteran receivers and a deep group of tight ends. Taylor is capable of stretching defenses in all directions, and his consistency will be a boon to whichever QB gets the ball from Jeff Brohm.
Best Defensive Player
Junior LB T.J. McCollum. UAB’s loss was clearly the Toppers’ gain. McCollum joined Western Kentucky after the Blazers temporarily folded, and instantly become one of his new team’s most active defenders. And he rose to prominence as an underclassmen at a new school. The staff loves the motor and work ethic of McCollum, who should be even more effective and disruptive in his second season on the WKU campus.
Key Player to a Successful Season
The new quarterback. The Toppers need to replace Brandon Doughty, who led the country in yards passing and touchdown throws in 2015. And while the backs will assume a larger role this year, this remains an offense that relies heavily on balance and a consistent passing game. While there are technically multiple contenders, this is really Mike White’s job now that last year’s backup, Nelson Fishback, has suffered a serious pectoral injury that’ll sideline him deep into the season. While Fishback had the edge in experience, he was already behind White in terms of overall arm talent. Sophomore Drew Eckels and Louisville transfer Tyler Ferguson are in the hunt as well.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
Western Kentucky repeats as the Conference USA champion. The Hilltoppers held on to their rising young coach, Jeff Brohm, and boast as much talent as any team in the league. And after capturing the crown in 2015, the holdover players now have the script for winning titles. Even in the year after the graduation of star QB Brandon Doughty, there’s absolutely no reason why this surging program should be targeting anything lower than back-to-back championships in the upcoming campaign.
Nov. 26 at Marshall. True, their history is limited to just two games over the last two seasons. But the Hilltoppers and the Thundering Herd are on the verge of being a part of Conference USA’s best rivalry in the coming years. Western Kentucky has won both meetings, including a 67-66 thriller in 2014 that ended Marshall’s dream of a perfect season. And in all likelihood, the winner of this November’s meeting will capture the East Division and take a big step toward winning the league championship a week later.
2015 Fun Stats
– First-half scoring: Western Kentucky 378 – Opponents 168
– Yards per catch: Western Kentucky 13.1 – Opponents 13.2
– Turnovers: Western Kentucky 17 – Opponents 31