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Western Kentucky Football: 2018 Hilltoppers Preview and Prediction

D'Andre Ferby, WKU Football

D'Andre Ferby, WKU Football

Western Kentucky combined for 23 wins and two C-USA titles in 2015 and '16, then fell last season to 6-7 -- the team's first losing record since 2010. One year after leading the nation with 7.65 yards per play in 2016, WKU plummeted to 96th (5.32) in its first year under coach Mike Sanford, who plans to spend more hands-on time with his offense in 2018.

Previewing Western Kentucky Football's Offense for 2018

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2018 Athlon Sports College Football Preview Magazine

Sanford coached quarterbacks at Stanford, Boise State and Notre Dame and was coordinator with the Broncos and Fighting Irish. He'll get back to his roots this season by calling plays and working with the QBs.

Sanford must pick a quarterback replacement for Mike White, who totaled 8,540 yards and 63 touchdowns the last two seasons. Drew Eckels is the room's veteran and can add a QB running dimension to WKU's offense. True freshman Kevaris Thomas -- a rare four-star recruit (247Sports) for the Hilltoppers -- could also play at some point this fall.

WKU's last rushing play of 20 yards or more came in the 2016 Boca Raton Bowl. Joshua Samuel redshirted last year but came on in the spring as a running back with speed who isn't afraid to run inside. Jacquez Sloan is a speedy sophomore receiver who became a deep threat as a freshman.

The production of young skill players is dependent on an offensive line that was bad in 2017. WKU surrendered 3.7 sacks per game, contributing to an FBS-worst mark of 2.0 yards per carry. Sanford hired TJ Woods, formerly of Wisconsin and Oregon State, to change that. The concerns about this group grew after spring ball, as Dennis Edwards left the program as a graduate transfer to Purdue.

Previewing Western Kentucky Football's Defense for 2018

While WKU's offense gave up 48 sacks last season, its own defense tallied just 12. An absent pass rush put pressure on the Hilltoppers' secondary, and the defense cracked down the stretch. WKU's final seven opponents all scored at least 27 points after none of the first six reached 24.

Sophomore DeAngelo Malone is the Toppers' quickest pass rusher. Coaches hope he can pack muscle onto his 6'4", 215-pound frame and withstand the rigors of a full season in the trenches.

Defensive tackle Evan Sayner returns after suffering a knee injury midway through the 2017 season. Linebacker Ben Holt -- son of former Hilltopper D-coordinator Nick Holt -- will see more time after all-conference pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe left for the NFL Draft.

The secondary is the strength of coordinator Clayton White's defense. Nickel back Ta'Corian Darden, cornerback DeAndre Farris and safeties Drell Greene and Devon Key all return as starters. Key ranked second for WKU last season with 94 tackles. Farris was No. 19 nationally with 13 pass breakups.

Previewing Western Kentucky Football's Specialists for 2018

Ryan Nuss missed five kicks last year from 39 yards or less. A botched Jake Collins fake punt attempt turned the tide late in a defeat at FIU, while WKU fell victim to a late Florida Atlantic punt fake in a loss to the Owls. Nuss is back, but Collins left as a graduate transfer to Northwestern. The Hilltoppers will need new kick and punt returners after the graduations of Cameron Echols-Luper, Nacarius Fant and Kylen Towner.

Final Analysis

A 1-5 finish ended Sanford's honeymoon, but reaching bowl eligibility for the eighth straight year with an unproven roster would make for a positive 2018. The Hilltoppers have young talent thanks to strong 2017 and '18 recruiting classes that focused on talent-rich Georgia. The more those players see the field this season, the more experience they'll gain for what Sanford hopes is a return to the top of C-USA.

College Football Rankings: WKU