Much of last year’s FBS-leading scoring offense for Western Kentucky is gone, most notably at the wide receiver position.
Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, arguably the two best wideouts in program history, combined for 174 catches, 3,048 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. Taylor was drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the 72nd overall pick.
So who’s left behind now to make up for all that production? One of Lexington’s own, Lucky Jackson.
“It’s definitely a role that can and will be filled,” Jackson said. “Rather than rebuilding we just got to reload and just keep coming with the same intensity as those guys left with.”
Jackson, a former Lafayette star, is projected to be one of WKU’s top receivers this season as a sophomore. Quarterback Mike White has noticed both Jackson and senior Nacarius Fant stepping up their games this year.
“Taywan Taylor isn’t coming back anytime soon, and he (Jackson) learned a lot from those guys, Taywan and Nicholas Norris and guys before him,” White said. “He’s kind of took it upon himself, between him and Nacarius Fant, to kind of be that alpha of the group and lead those guys.”
Sharing the No. 3 WR spot with Fant, Jackson caught 26 passes for 395 yards and two touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman. Jackson first broke onto the scene in the team’s second game, against Alabama, where he had two catches for 45 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown.
Jackson said the role he played last year helped him develop his game. While he didn’t play a lot of downs as a freshman, he was on the field enough to get his feet wet.
“It was definitely a season for me to learn and get some playing experience with those older guys,” Jackson said. “I could learn from them while still getting the ability to participate in the game.”
However, Jackson now finds that the roles have reversed and he’s mentoring the younger receivers despite only being a sophomore.
“Yeah, I’m young, but I have to set the example and the standard for those behind me,” Jackson said.
WKU’s offensive coordinator Junior Adams said Jackson and Fant are up to the challenge ahead of them.
“It’s always good to walk into a room where the bar is high,” Adams said. “They (Jackson and Fant) learned from those guys (Taylor and Norris), they sat there and waited for their opportunity, and their opportunities are now today.”
Head coach: Mike Sanford (first-year). He has been the offensive coordinator at Boise State and Notre Dame.
Last season: 11-3 overall, 7-1 in Conference USA. Finished as the C-USA and Boca Raton Bowl champions.
Returning starters: 12 (4 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams)
Outlook: The Hilltoppers will look to make history this season and become the only team in C-USA history to win the conference championship three years in a row. To do that, they’ll have to replace 62.2 percent of the squad that led the FBS in scoring offense last season.
Quarterback Mike White is the No. 2 returning FBS passer from last season behind Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. White finished in the top 10 in the FBS in completion percentage, passing efficiency, passing yards and passing touchdowns. He will have running backs Leon Allen and D’Andre Ferby and wide receivers Nacarius Fant and Lucky Jackson at his disposal for offensive weapons.
As for the defense, WKU returns 27 lettermen, including six starters. The Hilltoppers will have their most depth in the secondary, where they have four returning starters led by Marcus Ward. Up front, seniors Chris Johnson and Derik Overstreet will lead a defensive line that was second in rushing defense last season. Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Masai Whyte are WKU’s linebackers.
Game of the year: The Hilltoppers will host Louisiana Tech on Sept. 16 in a rematch of last year’s C-USA championship game. WKU won that game 58-44, and its has never lost to the Bulldogs at home.
Players to watch
RB Leon Allen: Allen is healthy and eligible to play after a gruesome injury ended his season in 2015. Allen completed coursework over the summer to graduate in order to be eligible. Allen will attempt to return to his 2014 form, when he was a C-USA second-team selection after running for 1,542 yards and 13 TDs.
WR Kylen Towner: Towner set the FBS single-season record for kickoff-return average at 40.3 yards per return. He has a chance to earn playing time at wide receiver, but he’ll earn most, if not all, his keep on special teams.
DB Joe Brown: He made the C-USA’s second team last season when he led the Hilltoppers in pass breakups with 10 and tied for the team lead with 11 passes defensed. Brown will need to step up his game even more after a season-ending injury to projected defensive back starter De’Andre Simmons.
LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe: After paying his dues as a redshirt freshman, Iyiegbuniwe had a huge role in 2016, registering 64 total tackles, 10 of which were for a loss. Iyiegbuniwe will be one of the leaders on a deep defense.