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Western Kentucky football: Five good questions about the Hilltoppers

Former Central High School star Anthony “Ace” Wales leads a deep stable of Western Kentucky running backs.
Former Central High School star Anthony “Ace” Wales leads a deep stable of Western Kentucky running backs. Bowling Green Daily News

Q: Can Mike White fill the shoes of record-setting quarterback Brandon Doughty?

A: Granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA in 2015, Doughty led the nation in passing yards (5,055), completion percentage (71.7) and touchdown passes (48). The leading candidate to replace Doughty (a Miami Dolphins seventh-round draft pick) seemed to be last season’s backup, redshirt senior Nelson Fishback. Instead, Fishback is sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle. So redshirt junior Mike White, a transfer from South Florida, has won the job over redshirt senior transfer Tyler Ferguson (Penn State, Louisville). In two years at South Florida, White completed only 51.5 percent of his passes and threw more picks (16) than touchdowns (11). Having All-America wideout candidate Taywan Taylor (86 catches, 1,467 yards, 17 touchdowns) back should help ease White’s transition.

Q: Are there ways WKU can take the pressure off the new starting QB?

A: The answer looks to be via the ground. Western has a veteran offensive line led by standout left tackle Forrest Lamp (39 career starts). The Hilltoppers also boast a bevy of proven running backs — ex-Central High School star Anthony Wales (1,091 rushing yards in 2015); punishing sophomore D’Andre Ferby (650 yards, 11 touchdowns); and injured star Leon Allen (1,542 yards in 2014; missed most of last year with a knee injury). Brohm is also excited about true freshman back Quinton Baker, the former Ashland star who was once committed to both Kentucky and Marshall.

Q: Who is next man up at tight end?

A: With former Hilltoppers tight ends Jack Doyle (Colts), Mitchell Henry (Packers) and Tyler Higbee (Rams) all on NFL rosters this preseason, WKU is emerging as “Tight End U.” A year ago, Higbee caught 38 passes for Western, eight for touchdowns. This year, longtime special teams ace Shaquille Johnson came into camp as the heir apparent. Wake Forest graduate transfer Stevie Donatell, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound son of Chicago Bears secondary coach Ed Donatell, spent his first two college seasons at Wake as a linebacker before shifting to tight end last season.

Q: Can Louisville transfers buoy the Western defense?

A: The offensive stats for WKU while going 8-5 in 2014 (44.4 points a game) and 12-2 in 2015 (44.3) were almost identical. The improvement that allowed Western to become a conference-championship program came on defense. In 2014, WKU allowed 39.9 points and 510 yards a game; last year, it was 25.9 ppg and 406 yards. Only four starters return from 2015’s improved defense, but Western is hoping two graduate transfers from U of L — linebacker Keith Brown (33 tackles in 2015 for U of L) and defensive lineman Nick Dawson-Brents (appeared in all 13 games for Cardinals last year) — help prevent a defensive backslide.

Q: Will Jeff Brohm’s big bet on himself pay off?

A: After starting 3-5 as WKU head man in 2014, Brohm has led Western to 17 wins in its last 19 games. The Toppers have played exciting football, too, scoring 40 or more points 17 times in the coach’s 27 games. After Brohm led WKU to the Conference USA championship, a bowl victory and a No. 24 ranking in the final AP poll for 2015, conventional coaching wisdom would have been to cash out and climb the career ladder. Brohm stayed put. If the coach produces another big season without Brandon Doughty, he will stamp himself as one of the hottest coaching names in college football. Should Western slip back, however, people will ask if WKU’s head man “missed his moment.”