Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
By Pete Fiutak
Head coach: David Elson
7th year: 39-32
Off. 17, Def. 15, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 22
Best WKU Players
1. RB Tyrell Hayden, Sr.
2. WR/PR Jake Gaebler, Sr.
3. OT Wes Jeffries, Soph.
4. RB Marell Booker, Sr.
5. FS Mark Santoro, Soph.
6. SS Ryan Beard, Soph.
7. QB Courtney Dalcourt, Fr.
8. TE/OT Ed Hazelett, Fr.
9. LB Darvis McBride, Sr.
10. KR Bobby Rainey, Soph.
9/5 at Tennessee
8/30 at Indiana L 31-13
For a program jacked up to be
joining the ranks of the big boys with full bowl eligibility and
full-time membership in the Sun Belt, it's still all about the future.
Western Kentucky has been pointing to this season for years. This is when it's time to be part of the fun and the spotlight, at least as much as it can be playing in the Sun Belt, but after finishing 2-10 in a tremendously disappointing season, it's hard to get too excited about possibly being the league's doormat right away. After all, the Hilltoppers are on an eight-game losing streak with losses to North Texas and FIU along the way.
But for all the ugliness of last year with little offense, not nearly enough key plays from the defense, and the brutal record, there were moments when the team looked a bit like the one that went 7-5 in 2007. Granted, six of those wins were against FCS opponents, and worse, beating West Virginia Tech 87-0, but there was still hope that last year would be a stepping-stone to build some positive momentum going into this year. For all the losses, WKU battled well in close games against Sun Belt stars Florida Atlantic and Troy providing a little hope that 2008 won't be spent being used as the league's doormat.
There's a major overhaul to be done all across the board with a tremendous recruiting class full of BCS-caliber players who should make WKU more competitive from day one. From QB/WR Courtney Dalcourt, to TE/OT Ed Hazelett, to corners Darryl Williams and Vince Williams, to WR/DB Will Adams, to defensive linemen Tevin Holliman, Galatian King, and Cole Tischer, the true freshmen are expected to come in and make this an interesting first season for a team that wants to take the Sun Belt by storm.
With or without the newcomers, there are some nice pieces of the puzzle to go along with the trouble spots. The offensive line should be far better with tackle Wes Jeffries leading a veteran group that gets almost all the key parts back. Jake Gaebler and Quinterrance Cooper for a good 1-2 receiving punch, and Terrell Hayden and Marell Booker will be one of the Sun Belt's best rushing tandems. There are too many good inside linebackers to get on the field at the same time, the corners are deep and talented, and safeties Mark Santoro and Ryan Beard could turn out to be the best in the Sun Belt.
The quarterback situation is up in the air, there's no depth whatsoever at outside linebacker, and the defensive front three is shaky, to put it nicely. But it's not like Western Kentucky is joining the SEC. The Sun Belt is far better than it was a few years ago, but there's still room to make a big move right away for a plucky team with a slew of nice athletes. The program might be a year away from being a major player in the Sun Belt, but that doesn't mean this won't be a fun first campaign now that it's finally invited to the party.
What to watch for on offense … the quarterback situation. Brandon Smith struggled in his limited time as a backup, but he has been groomed for this season over the last few years and can provide a little bit of senior leadership along with good mobility. However, redshirt freshmen Marcus Vasquez and Kawaun Jones have excellent speed and the all-around ability to get long looks at the No. 1 spot. And then there's Courtney Dalcourt, the team's top recruit in the Sun Belt's best recruiting class. The line is strong, the receivers aren't bad, and the running backs are experienced and fast. If the quarterback play is better, there could be a night-and-day improvement in an offense that sputtered throughout last season.
What to watch for on defense … the front three. Going into the season, Jared Clendenin and Bo Adebayo should start on the ends and Nick Hartnett will get the first look on the nose. That could change almost immediately with Tevin Holliman and Galatian King two of the Sun Belt's top recruits for the line. Throw in Cole Tischer, who might end up at linebacker, and the Hilltoppers will be relying on a lot of young players to try to hold up. Last year's line stunk and didn't have enough good athletes. This year's line will likely stink early on, but it'll eventually be tough and should be great next year.
The team will be far better if … it can score. In the 16 games against FBS teams over the last two years, WKU has scored more than 17 points just six times. Part of the problem is an inability to keep the chains moving, converting on just 33% of third down chances last season, but most of all, there simply hasn't been enough overall production. The ground game cranked out 1,727 yards last season, while the passing game threw for 1,706; the Hilltoppers were equally bad in both phases. The defense isn't going to be a rock, at least not right away, so it'll be vital for the WKU offense to find something that works early on.
The Schedule: The two tough non-conference games will come right away starting out at Tennessee before getting a home game against South Florida to announce the program's arrival in the big leagues. Central Arkansas and Navy are winnable games, considering WKU has the speed in the back eight to potentially keep the Midshipman ground game in check, and then it's all about the Sun Belt. A brutal stretch of four road games in five, wrapped around a home date with Troy, should squash any dreams of a big breakout season, but the season finale against Arkansas State is at home and the first two conference games are against FIU and UL Lafayette at home.
Best Offensive Player: Senior RB Tyrell Hayden. WR Jake Gaebler is the star target for the passing game with the ability to run precise routes and be the go-to target for the new starting quarterback, but Hayden, a speedy 5-10, 190-pounder, has to be a steadying factor. He led the team with a mere 388 yards and three scores last season, but he was fantastic two years ago rushing for 1,134 yards and ten touchdowns with four 100-yard games.
Best Defensive Player: Sophomore FS Mark Santoro. He'll replace leading tackler Travis Walters, but it's not like he'll be starting from scratch after making 60 tackles and two interceptions. A tough tackler with a nose for the ball, he should be great with more room to roam at free safety after spending last season in a variety of spots. While he'll be one of the team's best players, it's likely that one of the true freshmen, or strong safety Ryan Beard, becomes the team's best defender as the year goes on.
Key player to a successful season: Junior NT Nick Hartnett. The Hilltoppers desperately need size and strength in the middle after allowing 162 rushing yards per game and 18 scores. Hartnett is built for the nose at 6-0 and 290 pounds, and he needs to be the type of defender the rest of the line can work around. With a lack of tackles, Hartnett has to hold up until Galatian King is ready.
The season will be a success if ... WKU wins five games. For a rebuilding team that'll have to get used to seeing more intensity and more effort from teams that have to take the Hilltoppers more seriously, getting to five wins, and flirting with a winning record, would be a nice season before hoping for big things in 2010. There will need to be a few big upsets to get to five wins, but there's no reason WKU can't compete with and beat teams like FIU, North Texas, and UL Monroe.
Key game: October 10th vs. FIU. It'll be the fifth game of the season, but this is when things really start. It'll be WKU's first Sun Belt battle of the year, and considering the nasty road games that will come up quickly, this will be a must win. This will also be when the Hilltoppers are as rested as they'll be all season long with two weeks off after playing Navy.
2008 Fun Stats:
- First half scoring: Opponents 191 - Western Kentucky 93
- Third down conversions: Opponents 74-of-170 (44%) - Western Kentucky 57-of-175 (33%)
- Passing touchdowns: Opponents 18 - Western Kentucky 9
- 2009 CFN WKU Preview | 2009 WKU Offense
- 2009 WKU Defense | 2009 WKU Depth Chart