As the Hilltoppers approach their Spring Game set for April 18, expectations couldn’t be higher. Many, including SBNation’s Bill Connelly, have the Hilltoppers taking the gold in Conference USA this season. With exciting and impressive offensive performances in wins against Marshall and Central Michigan (in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl) to end the 2014 season, it’s easy to see why the average viewer would pick the Toppers atop the conference for 2015.
Head coach Jeff Brohm will have two returning pieces that he didn’t necessarily think he would have again this year: quarterback Brandon Doughty and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton. Doughty, the record-setting senior quarterback that led the Toppers to their best passing numbers in school history last year, was recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. His mentor, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton, was thought gone by many when he reportedly interviewed for jobs at Oklahoma and Georgia. He’s still around, too.
Additionally, the Hilltoppers will see the return of their leading rusher Leon Allen and leading receiver Jared Dangerfield. Although Allen has seen less carries in this pass-first Topper offense, he still managed to round up over 2,000 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns last season, while becoming Conference USA’s single-game rushing record holder with 345 yards against Army. Doughty’s favorite target in 2014, Dangerfield, will be looking to surpass his first season with Western Kentucky, where he caught 69 passes for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 6’3" Florida native and the end zone have been like "PB&J" so far this spring, according to the team’s Instagram account.
On the opposite side of the ball, however, one should be concerned. The Hilltoppers gave up over 44 points per contest in 2014, and famously let Central Michigan nearly come all the way back into the 2014 Bahamas Bowl where Western Kentucky had a 42-14 heading into the half. With cornerback Cam Thomas, their 2014 leader of the defense, gone (and possibly to the NFL), I’m slightly worried for what this 2015 squad could turn out to be. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt has to know that expectations are higher than ever for the Toppers, and he will have to rely on play-makers like his son, Nick Holt, and defensive back Wonderful Terry to fill leadership roles on the team.
Are early expectations too high for the Hilltoppers? Their potential is high, but they may once more be stifled by their own defense. Catch the Hilltoppers in action on April 18th in the 2015 Spring Game (1:00pm CT).