When time ran out on the 2017 season, Western Kentucky University had one more loss than it did wins for the first time since 2010. Quarterback Mike White’s productive two-year run as WKU quarterback was over, and head coach Mike Sanford’s first season was in the books.
A year later, Sanford is tasked with leading a team with just 11 seniors on the roster. His biggest challenge, however, will be squeezing as much production as possible out of a running game that ranked dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season.
In 2017, the Hilltoppers had exactly zero rushing plays greater than 20 yards and finished 9 yards short of 800 total yards on the ground. When asked if he expects the running game to improve in 2018, Sanford’s answer was quick and direct.
“It has to,” he said at the team’s media day. “And it will. That’s our job as coaches and we’re committed to it but we’re not just gonna hand the ball off and ask for a rugby scrum every play. We need to identify the backs that are gonna turn those 4-yard blocked runs into explosive runs.”
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Of the few seniors on the roster, perhaps no player has experienced a wider range of success and disappointment than senior running back D’Andre Ferby. After redshirting his first year on the Hill in 2014, Ferby was thrust into a lead role in 2015 when Leon Allen went down in the season opener.
Ferby earned Conference USA All-Freshman honors with 650 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season. A year later, his season lasted exactly one play because of a knee injury sustained on the first play of the 2016 season.
Now a self-proclaimed “elder statesman” on a young team, Ferby is ready to put last season behind him.
“It’s been a tough past two years coming off the season-ending knee injury and last year being last year, having the productivity that we did as a whole … it wasn’t anything worth talking about,” he said. “I got a chance to come back and kind of re-implement myself.”
Although he wasn’t pleased with his performance, Ferby remained the most productive player in WKU’s backfield last season, leading the team with 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also knows the Hilltoppers were picked to finish fifth in the Conference USA East Division this season.
“This year’s kind of different from previous years because it’s really no hype,” Ferby said. “It’s kind of like forgotten.
“I know one thing: it can’t be any worse than it was last year. Last year was one of the worst rushing years statistically that WKU has had. I know we have the guys in that room who are able to go out there and make big plays.”
While he will be an important piece of the running game, Ferby won’t be expected to turn it around on his own. Sophomore back Jakairi Moses is a speedy young runner who came close to breaking off the long plays WKU fans have become to expect. With former in-state talent Quinton Baker gone for a violation of team rules, redshirt junior Marquez Trigg steps into a larger role as do freshmen Gino Appleberry Jr. and Garland LaFrance.
“It’s kind of weird,” Ferby said. “I look around and there’s no more Ace Wales, no more Leon Allens and no more Brandon Doughtys. It’s kind of surreal how fast time goes by.”
Head coach: Mike Sanford (second year). Sanford previously served as offensive coordinator at Boise State and Notre Dame.
Last season: 6-7 overall, 4-4 in Conference USA. Lost to Georgia State in the Cure Bowl.
Returning starters: 12 (4 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams)
Outlook: The Hilltoppers are coming off a down season in Sanford’s first year as head coach. Quarterback Mike White is gone, making junior Drew Eckels the Toppers’ starter on a team with just 11 seniors. Gone too are wide receivers Nacarius Fant and Cam Echols-Luper, tight end Deon Yelder and fourth-round NFL Draft pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe. Lexington native Lucky Jackson is back for his final season and will compete with tight end Mik’Quan Deane and wide-outs Xavier Lane and Jacquez Sloane for catches. As for the defense, WKU will be led by its secondary where returning starters and Kentucky natives DeAndre Farris and Masai Whyte anchor an improving defense under defensive coordinator Clayton White. Replacing Iyiegbuniwe and defensive tackle Chris Johnson will be a tall order, but young pass rushers like DeAngelo Malone and Julien Lewis make a solid pair on the defensive front.
Game of the year: The Hilltoppers will face some major road tests in 2018, starting in Week 1 with a trip to Wisconsin. Two weeks later WKU travels up the road to play at Louisville for the first time in 20 years. As for the most important game of the year, a Nov. 10 date at defending C-USA champion and 2018 favorite Florida Atlantic stands out. A second-half collapse against the Owls sent the Hilltoppers home with a 42-28 home loss in 2017. A win against Lane Kiffin and company would be massive for Sanford in year two.