After an impressive debut, WKU coach Tyson Helton is hoping his veteran-laden team can build on what they were able to accomplish last season. Plenty of experience returns on either side of the ball and the Hilltoppers have a defense that should keep them in every game but how far this team goes will likely come down to what they get out of the most important position on the field.
Previewing WKU's Offense for 2020
Gaej Walker started his career as a defensive back but moved over to running back last season and carved out a nice role behind a veteran offensive line. The Hilltoppers return four linemen (Cole Spencer, Tyler Witt, Seth Joest and Jordan Meredith) who have combined for 114 career starts and helped push Walker to 1,208 rushing yards on a 5.0 yards-per-carry average. That experience will be important with WKU replacing quarterback Ty Storey and 1,000-yard receiver Lucky Jackson.
And there lies the biggest concern. Steven Duncan was expected to win an open competition and resume the starting quarterback role he held to begin the 2019 season before an injury, but the redshirt junior entered the transfer portal in April. That leaves Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas as the only two quarterbacks with experience, albeit very little. Maryland graduate transfer Tyrrell Pigrome will join the competition this fall and is expected to factor prominently into the battle to start.
Wide receiver Jahcour Pearson and tight end Joshua Simon combined for 1,234 receiving yards and will be reliable targets. Junior college wide receiver additions Mitchell Tinsley and Craig Burt are also expected to make immediate impacts.
Previewing WKU's Defense for 2020
DeAngelo Malone returns as the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year after 11.5 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss. He leads a defense that returns its top six tacklers and finished 22nd in the nation in scoring defense (20.1 ppg). That defense also finished in the top 20 nationally in third-down defense (seventh, 29.7 percent) and red zone defense (t-19th, 75.8 percent). Flanking Malone is an equally disruptive end in Juwuan Jones, who has 12 career sacks entering his junior year. Nickel back Ta’Corian Darden and defensive tackle Jaylon George are the only seniors to replace in fourth-year defensive coordinator Clayton White’s unit.
Linebacker Kyle Bailey (109 tackles) and safety Devon Key (93 tackles) return, along with Malone, as the team’s top tacklers. Trae Meadows and Dionte Ruffin are the returning cornerbacks, but there will be competition this fall with the addition of junior college defensive backs John Blunt Jr. and Dominique Bradshaw.
Previewing WKU's Specialists for 2020
Cory Munson ended a wild freshman season as WKU’s starting placekicker with a 52-yard walk-off game-winner to defeat Western Michigan in the First Responder Bowl. He was otherwise inconsistent with a 60.7 percent field-goal rate, but he sent half of his kickoffs for touchbacks. Punter John Haggerty averaged 45.9 yards per punt as a junior. Garland LaFrance and Jacquez Sloan split kickoff return duties.
Tyson Helton, the reigning C-USA Coach of the Year, hopes his veteran team that is slated to start 17 seniors can help rekindle the high-scoring offense WKU saw when he was previously the offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015. His first season, which included a dominant road win at Arkansas, was a step in the right direction. This year, the quarterback battle is obviously the most important decision facing the program.
“Whoever the quarterback is, we need him to feel comfortable in the fact that if I just manage the offense and my job, we’re a talented enough football team and good enough on defense that we should be able to win our fair share of football games,” Helton says. “Whoever we play, that’s an advantage to have.”
National Ranking: 72
(Top photo by Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics)