The Hilltoppers rank No. 73 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2017
Jeff Brohm left for Purdue so WKU has turned to former offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to keep things going. The Hilltoppers are the defending Conference USA champions and are a threat to repeat. Sanford’s offense is set at quarterback but otherwise will feature plenty of new faces. The defense also is undergoing some turnover, but has experience up front and in secondary. As long as the offense doesn’t regress too much, WKU will have a say in how C-USA plays out this fall.
Previewing WKU Football’s Offense for 2017
Mike White took the reins last season from longtime starting quarterback Brandon Doughty and kept the Western Kentucky offense humming. White’s 2016 stats (67.3 percent, 311.6 ypg, 37 TDs, seven INTs) were especially impressive considering he didn’t play much in the second halves of several blowouts. The senior QB is an ideal bridge between the offenses of former coach Jeff Brohm and new coach Mike Sanford.
Junior D’Andre Ferby’s 2016 season came to an end after he suffered a shoulder injury on his first carry of the year. He’s slimmed down from 240 pounds at the beginning of last season to 225 but still brings power up the middle. Sophomore speedster Quinton Baker will complement Ferby’s between-the-tackles running. Baker posted 542 yards and four TDs last year as a true freshman.
Graduated wideouts Nicholas Norris and Taywan Taylor rank at the top of every major receiving records list for the Hilltoppers. Senior Nacarius Fant (407 yards) and sophomore Lucky Jackson (395) are the top two returning wide receivers. Watch for rangy redshirt freshman Xavier Lane to become a big-play threat.
Four-year starting left tackle and highly touted NFL prospect Forrest Lamp is gone. The interior of the line is still stout, with senior left guard Brandon Ray and junior right guard Dennis Edwards returning. Senior Jimmie Sims will likely take Lamp’s old spot at left tackle.
Previewing WKU Football’s Defense for 2017
Seniors Derik Overstreet (34 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks) and Chris Johnson (43 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks) are two veterans who helped WKU hold opponents to just 3.0 yards per carry last season. That figure ranked fourth nationally.
The Toppers lost a defensive leader when senior linebacker T.J. McCollum followed WKU’s previous coaching staff to Purdue as a graduate transfer. Expect junior linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe to be one of the Hilltoppers’ top tacklers in coordinator Clayton White’s new 4-2-5 scheme.
The strength of the defense is the secondary, where all five projected starters are seniors. Cornerback Joe Brown broke up a team-best 10 passes last year, while fellow defensive backs Leverick Johnson and De’Andre Simmons defended eight apiece. Safety Marcus Ward gets a fifth year after missing the final 12 games of 2016 due to a knee injury.
Previewing WKU Football’s Specialists for 2017
Junior Skyler Simcox won the competition for placekicking duties last season and made 16-of-22 field goal attempts. The return game was huge for WKU. Fant averaged 15.6 yards per punt return with a pair of TDs, while Kylen Towner averaged a whopping 40.3 yards per kick return with one touchdown.
WKU made three straight solid coaching hires in Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Brohm, all of whom are now coaching at Power 5 programs. After Brohm left for Purdue, athletic director Todd Stewart turned to Sanford, who spent the last two years as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. He’s just 35 years old, but the coaches he’s worked under or played for include Chris Petersen, Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. The son of longtime college coach Mike Sanford Sr., the younger Sanford has been groomed his whole life for the chance to lead his own program.
The key returnee for Sanford is White, who piloted WKU to an FBS-best 45.5 points per game and 7.7 yards per play last season. Program stalwarts Lamp and Taylor are gone, but there’s enough of a foundation that Sanford doesn’t have to completely rebuild. The two-time defending Conference USA champion Hilltoppers won’t give up their league crown without a fight.
National Ranking: 73
C-USA East Prediction: 1
(Photo courtesy of WKU Athletics/Steve Roberts)