After taking a look at the Western Kentucky defense, we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about the high-powered Hilltopper offense. They need to replace ten seniors, including their top two receivers (Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris) and one of last year's best FBS linemen in Forrest Lamp. Luckily, they traded one offensive specialist head coach for another by bringing in Mike Sanford after Jeff Brohm left for Purdue.
The potential for WKU to repeat as the #1 scoring offense and the #1 overall offense is absolutely there. They just need the stars to align, so to speak, with their star quarterback having another stellar year, their backfield staying healthy, and the younger players stepping up in increased roles. These players will be huge pieces of that.
5.Dennis Edwards & Brandon Ray
The Tops had the fifth best rushing offense in the league last season with 1,496 yards on the ground with 21 touchdowns in league play. On top of that, Pro Football Focus rated WKU's line at #4 in the nation at the end of 2016. Coming into a year where both of WKU's top two running backs (D'Andre Ferby and Leon Allen) have some legitimate injury concerns, they desperately need their offensive line to play at a high level for another high finish in that department.
Individually, junior right guard Dennis Edwards ranked #31 among guards according to PFF last season. He has 26 career starts under his belt and helped pave the way for yet another 1,000 yard season from Anthony Wales in 2016. Edwards makes the move to center this season. Redshirt senior left guard Brandon Ray has been a rock as he’s started every game of his college career so far. Ray also made the All-Conference USA Preseason Team. Furthermore, Edwards and Ray will have three new starters on the offensive line alongside them, so a certain degree of leadership will be required to help inspire WKU's ground attack.
Jackson, a redshirt sophomore, had a modest first season in Bowling Green with 395 yards from 26 catches with two touchdowns. It's hard to stand out, however, being behind Taywan Taylor, Nicholas Norris, and Nacarius Fant on the depth chart. But with the prior two gone, Jackson will see his role grow significantly.
Jackson has heavily impressed coaches and teammates in spring ball and camp with his speed, his enthusiasm, and his occasional highlight reel catch.
He'll be a legitimate deep threat for Mike White this year and years to come. Look for him to turn in a 1,000 yard receiving season in 2017, provided that he stays healthy.
The redshirt junior returns to the Tops' offense this season after missing all but one play of the 2016 season due to a shoulder injury. Back in 2015, he showed a lot of promise gaining 650 rushing yards on 164 carries with 11 touchdowns while splitting carries with (mainly) Anthony Wales. Now Ferby can be back to being a mainstay in WKU's backfield and providing a solid one-two punch with Quinton Baker or a healthy Leon Allen.
Ferby has a particularly physical running style, which can be both a blessing and a curse. He functioned as a third and fourth down back in 2015 and you definitely don't want somebody who shies away from contact in those scenarios. It usually worked out for him then as he gained 37 first downs and successfully converted five fourth downs out of eight. The curse part is a factor since that lack of fear may lead him into another injury.
Fant made a bit of a name for himself last year as a punt returner averaging 15.6 yards per return, which was the best in Conference USA and fifth best nationally. That earned him a spot on the All-Conference preseason team for 2017. As a receiver, the senior pulled in 29 balls for 407 yards and two touchdowns last season. In his career, he's had 43 catches for 569 yards.
In addition to being one of the most experienced receivers on the roster, he's also the most versatile. He can run and throw the ball as well. Back in 2015, Fant threw three passes, two of which were caught for touchdowns. He also had a rushing touchdown that year. All of the above has him on the watch list for the Paul Hornung Award this year. If he's fully recovered from tearing his ACL late last season, he'll be incredibly useful for offensive coordinator Junior Adams in more ways than one.
As if there was any doubt. Here's all the awards White finds himself on the watch list for coming into the year: Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Award, Wuerffel Trophy, and the Manning Award. In his first season on the field for WKU in 2016, he had 280 completions on 416 passes for 4,363 yards with 37 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
To boot, the Conference USA Preseason Player of the Year looked impeccable on the long ball last year leading the FBS in passing completions of 30 yards (44) and 40 yards (24) or more. Plus, Bill Connely tabbed him as the best overall quarterback in the nation, and that's good enough for me.
With a new head coach that considers himself something of a quarterback whisperer (see Deshone Kizer), White's obviously going to be the center piece of an offense that scores a ridiculous amount of points.