Western Kentucky enjoyed a banner year in 2016, riding a high-powered offense to its best season in the Hilltoppers short history as an FBS program. Now, WKU’s staying power will be tested. The offense moves on without a three-year starting quarterback, who accounted for nearly 10,000 yards and 100 touchdowns the last two seasons. Jeff Brohm remains one of the brightest young coaches in the business, so the ‘toppers should remain a factor in the Conference USA race.
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Previewing WKU’s Offense for 2016
Western Kentucky has the unenviable task of replacing star quarterback Brandon Doughty. The six-year veteran rewrote the Hilltopper record book, throwing for 97 touchdowns and nearly 10,000 yards over his final two seasons. WKU had four candidates competing for the job in the spring and will add another freshman in fall camp. The spring didn’t present a clear starter, although junior Mike White appeared to be the frontrunner.
White — a transfer from South Florida who sat out at WKU last year — might bring the best physical talents out of the quarterbacks on the depth chart. The job won’t be decided until the fall.
The good news for the quarterbacks is that they’ll have a veteran nucleus around them. The Hilltoppers return their top eight offensive linemen, including star left tackle Forrest Lamp. That front line tied for 14th in the nation last year in sacks allowed per game. The top two running backs — sophomore D’Andre Ferby and senior Anthony Wales — return after combining for 20 touchdowns and more than 1,700 rushing yards last year.
WKU lost two of its top outside receiving threats, but its top target, senior standout Taywan Taylor, is back after his assault on the school’s receiving records last year. Taylor emerged as one of the most productive wideouts in the country despite starting only five games and briefly tested the NFL waters before deciding to return to school. WKU relies heavily on the tight end and must find a new option to replace star Tyler Higbee. All that adds up to some questions in Brohm’s explosive passing game, but the group has veteran leadership to lean on until it truly finds its way.
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Previewing WKU’s Defense for 2016
WKU’s defense improved last season from one of the nation’s worst units in 2014 to a more than capable group in 2015. The Hilltoppers lose seven starters from last year’s defense, but they’re not exactly devoid of experience. Those who’ve played before will be asked to take on larger roles, most notably at cornerback. The Hilltoppers must replace both starters, with juniors Joe Brown and De’Andre Simmons the most likely candidates.
WKU must replace three starters on the defensive line to go with returning junior defensive end Derik Overstreet. Senior tackle Omarius Bryant (6'3", 310 pounds) gives them a massive option in the middle, and senior Nick Dawson-Brents — a transfer from Louisville — provides more experience on the outside.
The linebackers should be the strength of the unit. The team’s leading tackler, junior T.J. McCollum, is back at outside linebacker. Senior Keith Brown, another transfer from Louisville, moves from a part-time starting role with the Cardinals to WKU’s middle linebacker position.
Previewing WKU’s Specialists for 2016
The kicking game is one of WKU’s biggest questions after graduating Garrett Schwettman, the school’s all-time leading scorer. Sophomore Jake Collins could be a candidate to handle both the field goal and punting duties. Junior receiver Kylen Towner has been WKU’s go-to return man since his freshman year. He tallied a 98-yard kickoff return TD last season.
WKU is not likely to be the explosive bunch that posted video game-type numbers last season on its way to a 12–2 record, a Conference USA championship and a Miami Beach Bowl win. But that doesn’t mean the Hilltoppers won’t be in contention for another league title and a bowl berth. They may have to lean on their defense early until the offense finds its identity, but an experienced offensive line and many skill pieces should give the eventual starting quarterback plenty to work with in Brohm’s creative system.