five good questions about the hilltoppers

Mark Story's WKU football primer: RPI suggests Conference-USA not sterner test for Toppers

Herald-Leader ColumnistAugust 24, 2014 

Kentucky College Football

Western Kentucky Coach Jeff Brohm, center, sits with his team during media day, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, at Houchens-Smith Stadium. (AP Photo/Daily News, Miranda Pederson)

MIRANDA PEDERSON — AP

  • scouting report

    Coach: Jeff Brohm (first season at WKU)

    Last season: 8-4 overall; 4-3 and tied for third place in Sun Belt Conference

    Returning starters: 15 (9 offense, 4 defense, 2 special teams)

    Outlook: The Hilltoppers move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA, where they are picked in the preseason coaches' poll to place fourth in the East Division.

    Western is coming off an 8-4 season, snubbed when bowl bids were awarded. "It was tough," Brohm said at last month's Conference USA media day. "Our guys fought hard. At one point we were 4-4 and the season could have gone either way, and our guys fought hard and won the last four games. Two of them went down to the very wire — we had to make two 90-plus-yard drives to win the game. So our guys wanted a chance to play in a bowl game. But things happen. Now we're in a tremendous league with tremendous bowl tie-ins, and we know if we have a successful season we'll get a chance to go to a great bowl."

    Turnover margin will be a point of emphasis. The Hilltoppers were a minus-10 last year. "That's something that it's hard to overcome, that deficit that we had," Brohm said. "We're going to work hard every day at improving upon that. Sometimes it's just about the quarterback mindset that when the play's not there, he's got to find ways to either buy some time to get a completion or find ways to get a few yards with his feet."

    The quarterback being Brandon Doughty. As a junior last year, his first full season as starter, he set school records for passing yards (2,857), completion percentage (65.8), single-game completions (29 vs. Troy), and single-game passing yards (387 vs. Troy). His weapons include running back Leon Allen and tight end Mitchell Henry.

    Special teams could be strong with kicker Garrett Schwettman. With two of the top single-season efforts by a Hilltopper, the junior is fifth all-time at WKU in career points by a kicker (156). For his career, he is 23-for-29 in field-goal attempts, 87-for-90 in PATs.

    Question marks; There's not a lot of experience on defense, and the wide receiver spots need to be more productive than last season. Can Leon Allen fill the big shoes left by running back Antonio Andrews?

    Game of the Year: The Hilltoppers will get a test right out of the gate when defending Mid-American Conference champion Bowling Green comes calling. The Falcons like to operate fast and score lots of points. This could be a tone-setter for the season.

  • players to watch

    RB Leon Allen: A junior, he has totaled 674 yards and eight TDs in two seasons as a backup. Now he's the No. 1. "He's very hungry. He's very strong," Brohm said. "He has very good speed and power, and I think he has the definite look and ability of a top-flight running back."

    WR Taywan Taylor: A freshman last season, he started seven games and caught 24 passes for 270 yards. "He had an outstanding spring and a very good summer," Brohm said. "He's very explosive, very strong lower body, an extremely hard worker."

    S Marcus Ward: A 6-foot-3 defensive back, he too started as a freshman last season. "He can hit. He can tackle," Brohm said. "He's very instinctive. He's a 4.0 student, so he's a very smart player."

    LB Nick Holt: At 6-1, 230, "doesn't look the prototypical size, but very instinctive, very smart," Brohm said. "You can tell he's the defensive coordinator's son. He's the quarterback of the defense, can jump plays and see things, read the quarterback's eyes."

    DE Kalvin Robinson: He played 10 games, including two starts, as a freshman last year. "He's very long, athletic, can run and gives us the look at defensive end that you're looking to have," Brohm said.

1.) How big a step up for WKU is the move to Conference USA?

By one measurement, the on-field competition in C-USA may not actually be tougher than what Western faced last year in the Sun Belt Conference. At the end of last season, the average RPI rating (yes, they have that for football, too) of WKU's eight SBC foes was 72.9. The average RPI for the eight C-USA teams Western plays in 2014 was 102.9. When Western looks around in its first year in C-USA, it ought to feel right at home. Four other current C-USA schools — Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State and North Texas — were members of the Sun Belt with WKU as recently as 2012.

2.) How will Jeff Brohm handle his first college head coaching job?

Succeeding Bobby Petrino did not work out well for Steve Kragthorpe at Louisville or John L. Smith at Arkansas. Brohm, the former Trinity High School and Louisville Cardinals quarterback, has the advantage of knowing the WKU personnel. He was Petrino's assistant head coach and offensive coordinator last year as Western went 8-4.

3.) Can Western replace Antonio Andrews?

It is likely no player in the country meant more to an offense than the graduated star running back Andrews did to WKU. The former Fort Campbell High School quarterback led the nation in total yards for each of the past two seasons (compiling a whopping 5,497 yards). Still, the Hilltoppers appear to have capable backs ready to step in. Junior Leon Allen will be the featured back. The 6-foot, 230-pound junior from Bradenton, Fla., ran for 90 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries last season in WKU's 35-26 win over Kentucky. Former Central High School star Anthony "Ace" Wales will try to give Western a "change-of-pace" back to complement Allen.

4.) Can WKU replace the vast star power it lost off its defense?

It's not just that Western loses seven starters off its 2013 defense. The Hilltoppers lost difference makers. Departed linebacker Xavius Boyd was Sun Belt Conference Defense Player of the Year in 2013. Departed middle linebacker Andrew Jackson (sixth round, Indianapolis Colts) and safety Jonathan Dowling (seventh round, Oakland Raiders) heard their names called in the NFL Draft. Suffice to say, defensive coordinator Nick Holt faces a mighty challenge in 2014.

5.) Can Western get strong play immediately from junior-college transfers?

It takes many successful jucos at least a year before they really get acclimated to FBS football. For WKU to succeed in 2014, it needs several players to defy that. Junior-college transfers such as defensive tackle Ge'Monee Brown and linebackers Nick Holt (the coordinator's son) and Dejon Brown are being counted on to (try to) help replace the immense defensive production WKU lost. Offensively, juco wide-out Jared Dangerfield could start right away.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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