The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers earned a reputation as something of an offensive powerhouse over the last several years but hit something of a speed bump last season. Head coach Mike Sanford Jr. has built his football reputation on great offense throughout stops at programs like Stanford, Boise State, and Notre Dame. Safe to say the fewest rushing yards in FBS and a 6-7 record were not what he was going for. So this year, Tops fans are hoping to see a step up from Sanford, offensive coordinator Junior Adams, and the players making up the offensive side of the ball for Western.
If you missed it last week, I talked about what the defense will look like, which you can read here.
I talked about this position group in more detail a few months ago, but here’s a brief synopsis...
Redshirt senior Drew Eckels will almost certainly be the week one starter due to being the most experienced quarterback on the roster. Eckels has seen time in 17 games in his college career and has waited his turn behind the likes of Mike White and Brandon Doughty. Steven Duncan is also a talented passer with a chance to take over after he serves a one-game suspension for DUI. Meanwhile, the Tops also have quality dual threats in both Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas waiting in the wings.
D’Andre Ferby returns for one more go-round along with redshirt junior Marquez Trigg and redshirt freshman Joshua Samuel. Freshmen Gino Appleberry Jr. and Garland LaFrance round out the depth chart. Jakairi Moses, who had the second highest rushing yardage total on the squad last year, is also on the roster but it doesn’t look like he is returning from a knee injury any time soon.
Quinton Baker, who had a lot of promise at the position, is now at FCS Portland State after a string of disciplinary issues. Ferby is the team’s leading returning rusher after their ground game last year was, without mincing words, terrible. The Tops netted just 791 yards on the ground with no runnings plays that went longer than 20 yards. A big part of that blame goes to the offensive line, but the coaching staff and fans alike will be looking for more explosiveness and explosiveness and better vision out of this backfield.
Lucky Jackson is easily Western’s biggest offensive weapon heading into this season. He is WKU’s leading returning receiver in terms of yards (600), catches (39), touchdown catches (3), and yards per game (50). Jackson’s speed is a key element of his game, which allowed him to score the Tops’ longest touchdown last year: 93 yards against MTSU. The redshirt junior and 2017 All-Conference USA honorable mention will also draw much of the attention of opposing defenses, which could open the door for wideouts like Quin Jernighan, Xavier Lane, and Jahcour Pearson to get some big plays of their own to replace the production of Nacarius Fant and Kylen Towner.
At tight end, redshirt senior Mik’Quan Deane has an opportunity to fill the shoes of Deon Yelder, whose breakout season last year led to an NFL opportunity. Deane was a fantastic JUCO player at Northeast Oklahoma and could have a chance to repeat what Yelder provided the offense last season. Plus, his 6’4”, 240-pound body makes him an ideal red zone target, in theory.
New offensive line coach T.J. Woods has his work cut out for him with this group. The offensive line contributed to the worst run game in FBS and gave up 48 sacks last year. The loss of Dennis Edwards, who is now a graduate transfer at Purdue, was a gut punch to this position group as he would have been the only senior offensive lineman on the team. Jimmy Sims and Matt Nord were also lost to graduation at the end of last season.
The Tops aren’t short on big bodies up front, but inexperience will be a tough obstacle to overcome. Right now the starting lineup is reportedly “penciled in” as Cole Spencer at left tackle, redshirt-sophomore Tyler Witt at left guard, redshirt-sophomore Seth Joest at center, redshirt-junior Miles Pate at right guard and redshirt-junior Parker Howell at right tackle. Howell becomes especially important because of his experience playing in every game last year and earning five starts. Pate will try to grow into a similar spot after impressing some folks at PFF last year. Joest is intriguing for the opposite reason. He played in just one game last season and inexperience in a starting center is worrisome.
Just like last year, this position group could make or break the team’s season. Hopefully, they get comfortable in their roles quickly.