Preview 2017: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Previewing and looking ahead at the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Western Kentucky Offense
No one’s expecting the Hilltoppers offense to be fifth in the nation again in yards and No. 1 in scoring with an attack that averaged 523 yards and 45.5 points per game. New offensive coordinator Junior Adams – along with an offensive head coach in Mike Sanford – will certainly give it a shot.
There’s a ton of lost production, hurt most by the departure of the unstoppable 1-2 receiving punch of Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, who combined for 174 catches for 2,048 yards and 31 scores. There are plenty of quick, dangerous options returning, with a few parts of last year’s supporting cast now in starting roles.
Not having the 1,621 yards and 29 total touchdowns of RB Antony Wales would hurt, too, but Leon Allen is back after two years recovering from a knee injury, D’Andre Ferby returns from a shoulder problem, and the freshman backs who helped the cause last year return.
Forget about replacing Forrest Lamp with anyone who’s close to being as good at left tackle, but the rest of the line should be excellent after an outstanding year. As long as the front five can keep 4,363-yard passer Mike White upright, the attack will still be among the best in the nation.
Biggest Key To The Western Kentucky Offense
The kick returners have to be star receivers. Nacarius Fant averaged close to 16 yards per punt return with two scores, and finished third on the team in receiving with 29 catches for 407 yards and two scores – and then he suffered a torn ACL. Can he come back and be as quick? If so, he’s a great target who can do most of the same things Taylor and Norris did.
Kylen Towner only caught five passes for 69 yards, but he was one of the nation’s top all-around return men. The smallish speedster will get his chance, while Lucky Jackson will get a bigger role, too. White will help make them all play well, but they need to make their quarterback look good, too.
What You Need To Know About The Western Kentucky Defense
It’ll be up to Clayton White to go from dealing with the NC State special teams and defensive backs to handling the WKU defense that allowed just 97 rushing yards per game and finished 41st in the nation overall.
The top three tacklers are gone, but there’s enough pass rushing production back up front, and there’s enough talent returning in the secondary, to hope for another great season.
Three of the starting defensive backs return – led by all-star Joe Brown at one corner – while the line should be good with a little bit of time for the depth to be replenished.
Can the linebacking corps hold up? Joel Iviegbuniwe is a good veteran on the outside, but the Hilltoppers have to …
Biggest Key To The Western Kentucky Defense
Find replacements for T.J. McCollum and Keith Brown. McCollum has been one of the tough guy run stoppers over the last few years, but now he’s following Jeff Brohm to Purdue – after coming up with 85 tackles last season – and Brown is done after leading the way with 131 stops. There’s experience back at outside linebacker, but these two were key parts to the D that finished second in the nation against the run.
Western Kentucky Will Be Far Better If …
Leon Allen is great. The passing game seemed like it had all of the fun, but the WKU ground attack was a killer, too, with Anthony Wales running for 1,621 yards and 27 scores, averaging almost seven yards per carry. Quinton Baker will be a key part of the equation – he added 542 yards and four scores last year – but it’s Allen who has the upside to carry the offense even more than Wales did at times.
The 6-0, 235-pounder has been off for two years with a horrible knee injury, but when he was right, he was a special all-around back with 1,542 yards and 13 scores in 2014 and 51 catches with three scores in 2014. If he’s not right, then it’s up to Baker to carry the load.
Best Western Kentucky Offensive Player
QB Mike White, Sr. – The move worked out well for everyone. South Florida turned out to be more than fine after White transferred, and WKU got itself a big-time passer who took the program to a championship.
The 6-4, 225-pound White has the right size, a good arm, last year, he proved he could be more accurate. Interceptions were a big problem early on in his career, and then he threw just seven picks in 416 attempts last season.
Amazing week in and week out, he finished the season with 4,363 yards and 37 scores, hitting the 300-yard mark seven times in the final nine games, including hitting Louisiana Tech for 421 yards and three scores in the Conference USA championship.
2. RB Leon Allen, Sr.
3. WR/PR Nacarius Fant, Sr.
4. RB Quinton Baker, Soph.
5. WR/KR Kylen Towner, Sr.
Best Western Kentucky Defensive Player
CB Joe Brown, Sr. – The secondary did a better job than the stats – everyone had to throw to try keeping up the pace. The 5-10, 195-pounder earned All-Conference USA honors with 43 tackles with two sacks and a pick. One of the league’s best ball-hawkers, he came up with 19 broken up passes over the last two years. He even has the ability to get into the backfield and pressure the quarterback once in a while.
2. DT Chris Johnson, Sr.
3. DE Derik Overstreet, Sr.
4. LB Joel Iviegbuniwe, Sr.
5. CB Leverick Johnson, Sr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
OT Matt Nord, Sr. – Or Parker Howell, or anyone who can take over for Los Angeles Charger Forrest Lamp. There were some massive losses on the WKU offense, but none tougher to replace than Lamp – starting NFL left tackles don’t just come around every year in Conference USA. The 6-6, 320-pound Nord spent last year as Lamp’s understudy and has a little bit of starting experience. Now it’s his job to keep Mike White in one piece.
The Western Kentucky Season Will Be A Success If …
It’s another championship season. – There’s a big coaching change, there’s the loss of most of the stars, and there’s a tough schedule against a league full of teams looking to knock off the champ. But after winning 23 games and two Conference USA titles over the last two years, can Sanford keep it all rolling? That’s where the bar is set at for the league’s power program.
Key Game To The Western Kentucky Season
Oct. 21 at Old Dominion – It’s all about getting back to the Conference USA title game, and winning it again. To do that, the Hilltoppers have to beat Marshall on the road and take care of Middle Tennessee late in the season, but first, they’ve got to get past a terrific Old Dominion team that’ll be jacked up at home for the potentially huge breakthrough moment. WKU won 59-24 last year.
2016 Western Kentucky Fun Stats
– First Half Scoring: WKU 384 – Opponents 160
– Punt Return Average: WKU 17.9 yards – Opponents 5.4 yards
– Field Goals: Opponent s 15-of-19 – WKU 21-of-30