Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
A new era has begun in Bowling Green, Kentucky, as the Brian Brohm era has ended, and that of Mike Sanford, Jr. has begun. One bit advise that I would give to Sanford is to not change a thing. Do not fix what is not broken, and do not tweak what does not need tweaking for the sake of personal ego. If that advise is taken, there is no reason to expect WKU to not compete for yet another CUSA East and conference title in 2017.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
Mike White Returns for his senior season at QB, and he broke through last fall and took the leadership reins of the offense in an effortless transition. He passed for 4363 yards and 37 TDs to just seven INTs, and completed a very respectable 67.3% of his passes, while averaging 311.6 yards passing per game. He will be one of the top ten QBs in FBS football in 2017.
I will talk about the loss at RB in a moment, but there is good news there as well. Quinton Baker is back to try to win the starting job, and averaged 5.47 yards per carry last fall while rushing for 542 yards and four scores in a backup role. Look for him to be a CUSA and WKU breakout candidate this season. Leon Allen also returns, and has 14 starts under his belt and could share time with Baker.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
The receiving corps was decimated by the loss of Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, who combined for 31 receiving TDs and over 3000 receiving yards last season. Nacarius Fant and Lucky Wilson are both back, but by comparison, caught a combined 55 passes to the 174 combined catches of Taylor and Norris. With White at QB, the developing receiving corps should pick up the ball quickly, but the group still has to gel as a unit, and that can take time.
Anthony Wales was a major factor in the run game, and even though Baker is back and has big potential, losing over 1600 yards rushiung and 27 total rushing scores from last year's production is a ton to replace.
While 15 lettermen return on the line, only four are upperclassmen, so Sanford will have to put together a unit that is coming back without their best player in NFL draft pick Forrest Lamp.
PK Skyler Simcox is back, but hit on only 72% of his FG tries last season, and will need to show some improvement as a junior. Brandon Ray and Dennis Edwards return to start at the OG spots, but both Tackles and the Center need to be replaced.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
Chris Johnson returns up front after finishing last season with 12.5 TFLs. He will be one of the main leaders of the defense at the point of attack. Derrick Overstreet also returns, giving the Hilltoppers two major factors to contend with in the trenches.
The secondary should be the strength of this defense in 2017, as three starters return. Marcus Ward, DeAndre Simmons, and Joe Brown will all return for fall camp. Joe Brown finished last season with ten PBUs, while Simmons added eight. Ward started just two games last fall, but should be ready to go full-time for the opener.
Jake Collins is back at Punter and averaged 42.72 yards per punt last season.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
Half of the defensive line needs to be rebuilt for a team that only allowed 97 yards rushing per game last season. It would be safe to assume that replacing a DT and a DE would make repeating that difficult, but the entire starting LB group is gone as well save for Joel Iyiegbuniwe. He finished with 64 tackles last season, and is now forced to become the anchor in the middle of the field. The architect of that defense, DC Nick Holt, is also gone, as he left with Brohm to go to Purdue. The loss of Keith Brown at LB will be felt.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 Eastern Kentucky, 9/9 at Illinois, 9/16 Louisiana Tech, 9/23 Ball State, 10/7 at UTEP, 10/14 Charlotte, 10/20 at Old Dominion, 10/28 FAU, 11/4 at Vanderbilt, 11/11 at Marshall, 11/17 Middle Tennessee, 11/24 at FIU
With a new era, changes often come, but as I said to open, change must not be overwhelming at WKU, where there is not a ton of fixes that are needed. Sanford must follow the blueprint left for him, and if he does, WKU will be competing for another CUSA title. The defense has a ton of holes in place, and the offense has questions at receiver and on the line, but the Hilltoppers have gotten to a place where people step up and run with the jobs given, and talent here has never been better. I do see a bit of a slip on the horizon this fall, but I do see eight or nine wins being more than possible against this schedule.