Despite leading the nation in passing yards and touchdowns in 2014, the message sent to Western Kentucky University quarterback Brandon Doughty this season is that less is more for the sixth-year senior.
“For Brandon, I think this is going to be a great year for him,” head coach Jeff Brohm said during WKU’s media day. “I think there’s pressure on him to perform, everyone has seen now what he can do and it’s going to be good for his maturation process to perform up to the level that people expect.”
Brohm wants Doughty to focus more on balance this year than simply putting up big numbers. That means “being efficient, taking care of the ball, getting us in the end zone and getting us wins,” he said.
Fortunately for Doughty, the task of passing off the reins is made easier with the return of last season’s top three running backs and three of its top four receivers — a nucleus that contributed to WKU having the nation’s fourth-best offense and second-best scoring offense last year. Doughty finished the year 375-for-552 for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns, which earned him the Sammy Baugh Trophy and the 2014 Conference USA Most Valuable Player award.
Doughty was granted a medical hardship waiver this season because of injuries sustained during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. For many quarterbacks who have NFL aspirations, the thought of forgoing personal accomplishments that would help bolster their draft stock seems laughable.
“My numbers were cool last year,” Doughty said. “Like I’ve said 100 times, we failed last year. If my numbers go down and we win a conference championship that doesn’t mean anything to me at all, just like my numbers don’t mean anything. We had to throw the ball and we were in tough situations and you have to throw the ball when you’re down, so to me those numbers didn’t mean anything. The number one goal is to win a conference championship and there’s nothing more and nothing less than that.”
WKU finished 8-5 last season, defeating Central Michigan 49-48 in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl after a thrilling 34-point rally by the Chippewas nearly upset the Hilltoppers. Western almost became the first FBS team in history to lead by 35 with 12 minutes left and lose.
The return of Doughty, junior running back Leon Allen and receiver Jared Dangerfield, along with a roster of young, upcoming talent, have the Hilltoppers in position to win Conference USA this season.
“They’re hungry to get out there,” Brohm said. “It’s a new season, a fresh season, they’re out to prove themselves. In order to be a great team for us, we have to be better overall, much better as a team and they understand that. For us to win this year against the teams we play, the offense, defense and special teams have to play well.”
The Hilltoppers have to hope that Doughty doesn’t revert to his junior-year form in which he finished with just 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions; however, Brohm likes what he sees from Doughty and expects big things from the player that he scouted while he was the quarterbacks coach at Florida Atlantic.
“I liked what I saw from him at that point,” Brohm said of scouting Doughty. “Now of course he has matured, he’s gotten better each and every year. He’s like every quarterback. He’s gone through the ups and downs, struggles, and I think that’s important for a lot of guys to do. If you’re not able to go through the hard times then you’re probably not going to be a good quarterback.”
Though Doughty’s journey as a college quarterback has been unorthodox, he stands to leave Western as one of the program’s most accomplished signal callers. Had you asked him two years ago if he would still be on a college roster after six years and on the precipice of leading the Hilltoppers to a conference championship, he simply would have shrugged.
“It’s not just a game it’s a lifestyle,” Doughty said. “It’s something that you have to choose to do and say ‘hey, I’m going to lock myself in fully on this thing and try to make myself better and be the best I can be.’ This is the only opportunity I have to do it.”
Coach: Jeff Brohm (second season at WKU)
Last season: 8-5 overall; 4-4 (third place in the Conference USA East Division)
Returning starters: 16 (7 offense, 9 defense). The Hilltoppers return 99.7 percent of their passing yards, 98.2 percent of their rushing yards and 80.8 percent of their scoring.
Outlook: WKU proved last season that a good defense is needed to win championships. Despite having a stellar offense with one of the nation’s fastest tempos, WKU went 4-4 in C-USA play and nearly gave up a 35-point lead to Central Michigan during the Bahamas Bowl.
The only two teams with worse pass defenses than WKU in 2014 were Tulsa and SMU. The Hilltoppers allowed five opposing quarterbacks to post a 172.0 passing rating or better. Thankfully for WKU, teams were so terrified of putting the ball in Brandon Doughty’s hands that they relied more on the run in an effort to slow down the game.
Offenses, however, still gained more than 5 yards per play on 42 percent of their carries. The addition of UAB transfer Jontavious Morris and junior-college transfers Sidney Hammond and Omarius Bryant should bolster the depth of a defense that struggled after replacing three of four starters in the secondary last season. And the return of safety Brandon Leston and corner Wonderful Terry will help. Terry scored three of the Hilltoppers’ five DB touchdowns in 2014.
Fortunately for WKU, the return of Doughty, last season’s top three running backs, three of its top four receivers and four offensive linemen with experience should provide cover if the defense proves lackluster once again.
Doughty ended 2014 with a 167.1 passer rating, third in the nation behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Ohio State’s JT Barrett. His numbers should go down this season after head coach Jeff Brohm stated his desire to divvy up the workload. Enter senior running back Leon Allen.
Allen finished 2014 with 272 carries for 1,542 yards and 13 touchdowns. His backup, Anthony Wales, had 82 rushes for 518 yards and five TDs. The two create enough of a tandem threat that the weight on Doughty’s shoulders should be lightened this year.
The loss of all-conference tackle Cameron Clemmons, however, means that there might not be a senior starter on the offensive line. Without that experience, the offense might have trouble grinding out games on the ground. If that happens, look for Doughty to resort to winning games with his arm.
With a schedule including Vanderbilt, LSU, Middle Tennessee State, Indiana and Marshall, the road appears challenging. But added talent and a wealth of experience mean that this might be the year WKU eclipses the eight-win mark.
Game of the Year: Marshall
RB Leon Allen: The senior erupted last season for 1,542 yards on 272 carries. He led Conference USA and ranked seventh nationally with 2,018 yards from scrimmage. “He’s one of a kind,” Brandon Doughty said. “Just a super athlete, God-given talent. We’re just looking for him to be consistent, stay healthy because our offense really relies on him.”
QB Brandon Doughty: A sixth-year senior, Doughty led the FBS in passing yards (4,830) and passing touchdowns (49) in 2014. He propelled an offense that ranked No. 4 nationally.
DL Derik Overstreet: The sophomore was named the Bahamas Bowl’s defensive player of the game as a true freshman. “The players that played last year got bigger and stronger,” Coach Jeff Brohm said. “I think we’ll have a very good year defensively.”
WR Jared Dangerfield: A key component to Doughty’s success last season, Dangerfield racked up 69 catches for 825 yards and 11 TDs.
S Wonderful Terry: The senior scored three defensive touchdowns in 2014.