Just like the team’s overall record in 2017, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers’ defense was average in Mike Sanford first year as head coach. The Tops were seventh in Conference USA in points allowed and eighth in the league in yards allowed with 4903 that season. While there were definitely moments that I’m sure defensive coordinator Clayton White would like to do over, his unit had successful moments as well. Many of the players in that group return this season and should be hungry for a bounce-back year.
For this preview, we’ll take a look at each subsection of the defensive and look at what they lost from last year’s team, who they return, and what needs to happen on D for the Tops to get back on top of C-USA.
The loss of both Juwan Gardner and Leverick Johnson will be felt, but there’s quite a bit of talent coming back in the position group that was arguably WKU’s strongest in 2017. DeAndre Farris has earned the title of the team’s best corner after a C-USA best 14 pass breakups last season. The Tops will be hoping for yet another career year out of the redshirt senior with so many NFL-quality receivers on the schedule this year.
Devon Key returns at the free safety spot after earning a spot on the All-Conference USA Freshman team last season. His 94 tackles were second on the team, which is not a good thing considering he’s a free safety, but speaks to his overall talent.
The Tops also bring several players with game and starting experience back including Drell Green, Roger Cray, Antwon Kincade, and Ta’Corian Darden. Keep an eye on hard-hitting freshman safety (with the body of a linebacker) Malik Occiur to get some snaps under his belt this year also.
Joel Iyiegbuniwe making the jump to the NFL was a massive loss for WKU after leading the team in tackles and tackles-for-loss last season. Redshirt junior Ben Holt has plenty of experience getting snaps in every game each of the last two seasons though and will do his best to be the guy this year. The former fullback really came alive at the end of last season with 24 tackles in the last five games. A breakout year in that outside backer spot would be great.
An intriguing addition to the LB group this year is Kentucky transfer Eli Brown. The redshirt junior is immediately eligible and has two seasons left as he returns to Bowling Green after being a four-star recruit at BG’s own Warren East High School. Brown showed some great flashes in SEC competition, including six tackles against South Carolina (a feat he also achieved against Eastern Michigan last year). Coached Sanford has raved about Brown’s speed and ability to cover the field since the outside backer came to BG, so safe to say we will see him quite a bit as well, if he doesn’t win the starting job outright.
Redshirt senior Masai Whyte resumes his place as the starting inside linebacker after growing into one of the defense’s main contributors over the last three seasons. Whyte brings a nice well-rounded playing style to the position, which helped him pick up 63 tackles and break up three passes last year.
On the Tops four-man defensive front, they lose their sacks leader from last year in Derik Overstreet who had three of the team’s 12 sacks last year. That measly stat was the third worst in the conference in 2017. Hopefully this group has a higher ceiling than what that stat indicates.
Sophomore DeAngelo Malone returns after bulking up in the offseason by at least 15 pounds to take the starting job at one of the ends. Malone put forth his best game of last season in the loss to Illinois last year with six total tackles. The defensive end grabbed his one solo sack in the win over Charlotte.
As far as the tackles go, Evan Sayner will return this season after suffering a leg injury six games into last season. After waiting his turn to become a starter, the rising senior started strong before getting hurt with 18 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and a sack. At the other tackle, the Tops have another redshirt senior in Julien Lewis. Lewis filled in for the injured Sayner last season with 30 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and a blocked field goal. Lewis flashed some decent pass rushing ability as well last season with five QB hurries.
Finally, at the other defensive end, Carson Jordan seems like the most likely candidate to win the job. The former Mississippi Gulf Coast CC player won the starting job last year, but was knocked out for the season in the first game with a leg injury after battling a shoulder injury all of that spring. If Jordan stays healthy, he will be a big factor for the WKU defense this year.