2019 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Team Preview

With guys like Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino, and Jeff Brohm as their coaches, Western Kentucky quickly turned into a G5 power, having a winning record every year from 2011-2016, with a 53-25 record over the six-year span.

Mike Sanford came in in 2017 and went 6-7 before a disastrous 3-9 record in 2018. Normally I’m an advocate of giving coaches time, but at a program with expectations as high as WKU, a 9-16 record in two years after going 23-5 the two years before meant it wasn’t surprising that the Hilltoppers cut the cord.

Tyson Helton is the new head coach. He was an OC here under Jeff Brohm before leaving to become QB coach under his brother at USC, where he coached Sam Darnold for two years before leaving to become Tennessee’s OC last year.

2018’s team was young so a lot returns, and they were actually decent down the stretch, winning their final two games by a combined score of 70-31, so the turnaround may come quicker than expected

Offense

The new OC is Bryan Ellis who was an offensive assistant here before leaving to join Helton at USC, where he became the QB coach after Helton left for Tennessee.

The top question for him to answer will be who the quarterback will be. Last year’s starter, Drew Eckels, missed a lot of time due to injury, leading Steven Duncan (58%, nine touchdowns, seven interceptions, 5.7 YPA) and Davis Shanley (68%, three touchdowns, two interceptions, 6.7 YPA) to split time. Both struggled a lot although Shanley was certainly the more impressive of the two. WKU also adds Arkansas grad transfer Ty Storey (57%, 11 touchdowns, ten interceptions in nine starts with the Razorbacks last year). Redshirt freshman Kevaris Thomas is someone I’d give a look to, none of the previous three are particularly exciting options.

The skill corps should be in good shape though. RB Joshua Samuel (5.3 YPA) returns along with interesting guys like Jakairi Moses, who was hurt last year, and Quinton Baker, who redshirted last year.

The receiving corps is loaded with potential with seven of the top eight back including junior Jacquez Sloan (495 yards, 16.0 YPC), who dealt with injuries last year. Seniors Lucky Jackson (552 yards, 11.0 YPC, four touchdowns) and Quin Jernighan (437 yards, 10.7 YPC, one touchdown) also return and a tantalizing prospect joins in Manny Allen, who had multiple P5 offers.

The line brings just about everybody back, including all-conference tackle Miles Pate, after the group was pretty good last year. Cole Spencer returns after being out for the year with an injury last year. Some guys like Pate, Jernighan, and Jackson will not return but the bulk of this offense will be back for 2020 so this year should be about laying the groundwork and choosing a quarterback.

Defense

DC Clayton White is back on the defensive side of the ball. The defense wasn’t great last year but certainly was the better half of this team.

Star LB Ben Holt is the big loss on the this side of the ball, LB Masai White, S Drell Greene, and CB DeAndre Farris are all gone as well, but pretty much everyone else is back, including ten guys who had 25 or more tackles last year.

NB Ta’Corian Darden is the top returner (four TFL, 11 PBUs, three interceptions), and he is joined in the secondary by safety Devon Key (three TFL, six PBUs, three interceptions).

Former star recruit and Kentucky transfer Eli Brown will be ready to step into a bigger role after shining as a backup last year.

Ends DeAngelo Malone and Juwuan Jones (combined 11 sacks, four TFL) and DT Jaylon George (three sacks, three TFL) are back on the line and if I had to wager I’d say the pass rush will be this defense’s strength.

Corner is a bit of a question mark, Roger Clay and Dionte Ruffin struggled last year as underclassmen but should improve with experience. JUCO transfer Trae Meadows should also lighten the load a little bit and Helton has already brought in some interesting freshmen in the secondary to add some depth.

I’m not sure who starts opposite Brown at the other linebacker spot (probably Tennessee Tech transfer Clay Davis or junior Kyle Bailey, someone that really struggled last year in limited action).

There is a ton of talent on this defense and ten of the top 14 tacklers return (although just two of the top five) so depth shouldn’t be an issue and we should see some improvement after this was one of the youngest Ds in the nation last year.

2019 Outlook

This team has a real shot to go bowling in year one under Tyson Helton. The Hilltoppers are still pretty young (although not even close to how young they were last year) and some serious questions remain (QB, CB, LB) but there is a lot to like.

With only five seniors projected to start and just four more as backups, this team is still young and 2020 should be exciting.

As for 2019, drawing UAB and Southern Miss from the West as crossover opponents is tough, but the non-conference schedule is manageable, I think they’ll pick off at least one of Army/Arkansas/Louisville. A bowl run isn’t out of the question by any means, but without seemingly any good options at quarterback, I can’t call for it. I hope one of the three shine and WKU can get back on track to being the program it was just a couple years ago.

Schedule

DateOpponentOPP. RANKProj. Margin
29-AugCentral ArkansasNRn/a
7-Sepat FIU83-7.4
14-Sepvs. Louisville (NAshville, tn)92-3.4
28-SepUAB91-0.5
5-Octat Old Dominion1152.1
12-OctArmy78-2.6
19-OctCharlotte1147.5
26-Octat Marshall67-9.5
2-NovFlorida Atlantic79-2.5
9-Novat Arkansas68-9.5
23-Novat Southern Miss82-7.9
30-NovMiddle Tennessee94-0.2

Average Projected Record: 5.3 wins, 6.7 losses (3.4 wins, 4.6 losses)