After two straight Conference USA championships in 2015 and 2016, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers fans were hoping for another big year despite a new head coach at the helm. So there was a bit of disappointment when Mike Sanford Jr.’s team only managed a 6-7 record in 2017. Now with one of the school’s best quarterbacks ever gone, along with several other big names, the Tops are hoping some younger talent can step up in an uncertain time for the program.
Top players to watch: WR Lucky Jackson, RB D’Andre Ferby, C Seth Joest, QBs Drew Eckels and Steven Duncan, TE Mik’Quan Deane
As far as the quarterbacks and running backs go, there are a few question marks. We’ll more than likely see multiple names get snaps at both spots. Drew Eckels will start the year under center, accompanied by D’Andre Ferby at running back. At receiver, Lucky Jackson is the team’s most eye-catching player, but the Tops are deep with pass catchers all around. 6’4”, 240-pound tight end Mik’Quan Deane also has a shot to make a big impact now that he’s the starter. The offensive line was absolutely awful in 2017, so new offensive line coach T.J. Woods has to get a senior-less group of blockers ready to go.
Top players to watch: CB DeAndre Farris, S Devon Key, LB Ben Holt, LB Eli Brown, DE DeAngelo Malone
For a more in depth look at the defense, here’s a preview of that group. Here are a few basic thoughts...
Team captain DeAndre Farris, all-conference pick Devon Key, and an experienced secondary are the Tops’ best bet to slow down opposing offenses in the 4-2-5. At linebacker, captain Ben Holt looks to be the spark plug in the for the Tops defense with Masai Whyte hoping to hold down the middle of the field. Kentucky transfer Eli Brown could also get plenty of snaps at the outside backer spot after being ruled immediately eligible over the summer. Along the line, the Tops are hoping for fewer injuries this year after most of this year’s projected starters missed a lot of 2017. Hopefully that will boost their pass rush, which had the third fewest sacks in the league last season.
For a more in depth look at the specialists, here’s a preview of that group.
In a nutshell, Ryan Nuss is an experienced kicker who was near automatic on extra points last year (39/40), but struggled at times with midrange field goals (missed five kicks between 20 and 39 yards in 2017). Alex Rinella has been steady as a kickoff specialist, but will now also be the team’s full-time punter at holder. The kid has a lot on his plate, but the leg strength is there. Long snapper Ben Reeder was probably the only person on the team who I can honestly say had a flawless season in 2017 with 113 perfect snaps. At kick returner, there isn’t a definitive guy right now, but Lucky Jackson and Jacquez Sloan could prove useful
Things that went well in 2017
- Pass Defense
- Good utilization of the tight end
- Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Things that need to happen in 2018
- Significantly better Offensive line play
- The defensive line stays healthy
- A long term solution needs to be found at QB
08/31/18 - @ Wisconsin
09/08/18 - Maine
09/15/18 - @ Louisville
09/22/18 - @ Ball State
09/29/18 - Marshall
10/13/18 - @ Charlotte
10/20/18 - Old Dominion
10/27/18 - FIU
11/2/18 - @ Middle Tennessee
11/10/18 -@ FAU
11/17/18 - UTEP
11/24/18 - @ Louisiana Tech
Analysis and Predictions
That season opener against #4 Wisconsin on the road isn’t going to be pretty. Chalk that one up as a loss. The home opener against Maine the next week will be a nice palette cleanser for their first victory, followed by another road loss against a Louisville team with multiple NFL talents on the roster. The road contest against Ball State could be tricky if the Tops aren’t careful, but the experience on their defense should carry them past the Cardinals’ less-than-impressive offense.
The amount of road games here is brutal and we saw what that did to last year’s team. Not to mention that many of the C-USA teams on the schedule are set to take big steps forward this season. The most likely wins I see here are the road games at Charlotte and MTSU, along with the home game against UTEP.
5-7. Anything more than that, you can color me impressed. There are some REALLY impressive young players on this roster who I expect big things from in the future (KEVARIS THOMAS) but I don’t think it will all come together immediately.