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WKU 2017 Season Preview: Top 5 Defensive Contributors

Who will be the biggest X factor this year for the Tops' defense?

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Memphis vs Western Kentucky Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

With most people fixated on the firepower of WKU’s offense, it’s a shame people can sometimes forget about the play makers of the Tops’ defense. In 2016, WKU ranked first in Conference-USA in rushing defense allowing 1,361 yards on 456 attempts. On the passing side, however, there’s some room for improvement. The Tops were tenth in the league giving up 3,911 yards.

Losing Nick Dawson-Brents along the defensive line (graduation) and the injury of corner De’ Andre Simmons create some immediate holes that need to be filled. Luckily there’s also plenty of returning talent to help bring the young guys along. These five players will be a big part of that, as well as strengthening WKU’s case for a third consecutive league championship.

5. Leverick Johnson

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson looks like a lock to be the nickel in WKU’s new 4-2-5 defense. The senior has appeared in 37 games thus far in his career, racking up 81 tackles, 12 passes defended, and three interceptions. One of his three picks was a 61 yard return for a touchdown against FIU in 2016.

In a 4-2-5, a quality nickel is just as important as any other defensive back and the Tops will certainly benefit from the depth and experience Johnson brings to the fold. Projected starting corner De’ Andre Simmons is gone for the season with a knee injury, so it looks like the next man up at that spot is a true freshman in Roger Cray. Starting a freshman is usually a gamble, so it helps that there’s a quality senior in the backfield as well with what may be the area that needs the most improvement for WKU.

4. Chris Johnson

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In his first season at the FBS level in 2016, Johnson immediately made his presence known with 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks at the defensive tackle spot. Now with Omarius Bryant gone, Johnson can be the star of WKU’s interior line. The media seems to think so as well, evidenced by the fact that they named him to the preseason All-Conference first team.

With fall camp underway, the coaches have made it clear that they expect a lot of the senior, especially as a run stopper.

“When Chris Johnson turns it on, he’s unblockable,” [Mike] Sanford said. “I mean that. … He will literally live in your backfield.

“That’s a high calling for him and something he’s got to live up to every day. He’s tough to deal with.” — Via Bowling Green Daily News

3. Joe Brown

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Memphis vs Western Kentucky Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Along with with Chris Johnson, Brown was the only other member of WKU’s defense selected to the preseason All-Conference first team. He also starts the season on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award. Based on his body of work that includes appearances in 36 games with 21 passes defended and two interceptions, he certainly deserves it. He's a great tackler and blitzer as well which helped him grab four tackles for loss and two sacks in 2016.

The senior from Louisville will start the season at corner where he made ten starts last season. In that year, his efforts landed him on the All-Conference USA Second Team. As I mentioned, the defensive back corps especially needs that experience. Defensive Coordinator Clayton White will count on the same level of productivity from Brown this year against some of the pass-heavy offenses in Conference USA.

2. Derik Overstreet

Marmot Boca Raton Bowl - Memphis v Western Kentucky Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The senior defensive end leads the defensive line group for the Tops that has been solid over the last few seasons. But with the dismissal of fellow senior defensive end Tanner Reeves, Overstreet will now shoulder even more of the work load.

He's been the starter at that spot the past three seasons and totaled 113 tackles (21 for a loss) with eight sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and an interception. He always seems to produce his best stat lines in the big games too. For example, he had a career high eight tackles in last season's Boca Raton Bowl win over Memphis. He also produced two sacks and two tackles for loss in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl as a true freshman. WKU will need similar performances out of him again to add to their trophy case.

1.Joel Iyiegbuniwe

NCAA Football: Rice at Western Kentucky Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

The leader of the defense, Iyiegbuniwe was an All-Conference USA honorable mention last season after accumulating 64 tackles, 10 for a loss, and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore. He's an exceptionally well rounded linebacker that can play with just about any offense in the nation. Against then #1 Alabama last season, he lead the team with ten tackles and, especially early in the game, provided some excellent pressure on the Crimson Tide offense.

The area where he's been particularly impressive is defending the flats and gobbling up screen passes. His speed and aggressive style continually puts him in the right place at the right time to break up those type of plays. It was on that kind of play that saw him ejected on a questionable targeting call early in the Boca Raton Bowl at the end of last season.

Regardless, being in the backfield so regularly usually ends well for the junior. He messes with the tempo of opposing quarterbacks. The best example would be when absolutely wreaked havoc on Miami (OH) last year where he hurried the QB five times with three passes broken up. If the defense continues to allow him to play the way he does and let him loose on blitzes, he'll make life much harder for opposing quarterbacks.