John Clay

Western Kentucky football’s high-flying offense searches for a new pilot

Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm lifted the Miami Beach Bowl trophy after his team beat South Florida 45-35 last season. The Hilltoppers must replace prolific quarterback Brandon Doughty (12) in 2016.
Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm lifted the Miami Beach Bowl trophy after his team beat South Florida 45-35 last season. The Hilltoppers must replace prolific quarterback Brandon Doughty (12) in 2016. Associated Press

Walking down the Avenue of Champions at the home of the Hilltoppers, no one would be surprised if some ridiculously oversized and impossible-to-miss bronzed footwear was situated right next to L.T. Smith Stadium.

After all, Western Kentucky football has some big shoes to fill.

“We know that,” said Coach Jeff Brohm during the program’s Media Day on Wednesday.

Everyone who knows anything about WKU football is painfully aware that following a Conference USA title, No. 24 final Associated Press ranking and 12-2 record in 2015, Brohm’s Bombers must replace their pilot in quarterback Brandon Doughty, who threw for an NCAA-best 5,055 yards and 48 touchdowns a year ago.

With Doughty at the controls, Western Kentucky was third in the nation at 44.3 points per game, trailing only Baylor and Texas Tech. The Toppers were ninth in total offense (526.4 yards per game) and scored a combined 47 touchdowns in the first half alone.

So who gets the daunting task of trying to replicate those pinball numbers? Brohm isn’t sure quite yet, but he isn’t lacking for candidates. The former Louisville quarterback, 20-7 in his two years as the head coach in Bowling Green, said he wants to take at least the first week to 10 days of practice to establish the pecking order.

Mike White was a two-year starter at South Florida before relocating to WKU. Tyler Ferguson, a transfer from Louisville, might have the most upside. Drew Eckels, a redshirt sophomore from Daytona Beach, has home run potential. And Brohm is high on Steven Duncan, a true freshman out of South Carolina.

“(Mike White) probably knows the offense a little better than the others,” Brohm said. “Tyler Ferguson has to be sure he can be consistent. Drew Eckels has showed signs in the spring; he probably made more big plays than any of our quarterbacks.”

The QB derby winner inherits multiple weapons. Anthony “Ace” Wales rushed for 1,091 yards after Leon Allen, a 1,200-yard rusher in 2014, was injured last season. Both return. The top two receivers, Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, are back after combining for 149 catches a year ago. The offensive line returns enough experience to be labeled the “strength of the team” by Brohm on Wednesday.

Point production has been the hallmark of a Hilltoppers program that has made three smart hires since moving up to FBS. Willie Taggart (now at South Florida), was followed by Bobby Petrino (back at Louisville), followed by Brohm, who played for Howard Schnellenberger before tutoring under Petrino.

In fact, you could make a strong case that Western Kentucky was the commonwealth’s best FBS team last season. Not only were the Toppers 9-0 in C-USA (including the title game), they won eight of those nine games by at least 14 points.

Doughty was installed as the WKU starter as a sophomore during Petrino’s one-year stay, but he blossomed under Brohm. Over his final two college seasons, Doughty threw for 97 touchdowns compared to just 19 interceptions on the way to being a seventh-round NFL Draft pick by the Miami Dolphins.

97Number of TDs now-departed quarterback Brandon Doughty threw at WKU compared to 19 interceptions over the last two seasons

Can Brohm coax more eye-popping numbers from a new pupil? Actually, there will be two Brohms at the chalkboard. Jeff’s bother Brian, the former U of L and NFL/CFL quarterback, has joined the staff as quarterbacks coach.

“A lot of times you want your coach to see it how a player sees it,” Brian said. “I think I can do that for them.”

WKU fans await a Sept. 10 trip to defending national champion Alabama on the schedule as well as a Sept. 24 date with visiting Vanderbilt, though Jeff Brohm was quick to point out he was more concerned with the Sept. 1 opener against Rice.

One game at a time and one job at a time. Job one is picking a new starting quarterback.

“Our quarterback, yes he has to find ways to make plays, but he also has to make sure that he’s smart and doesn’t lose the game for us,” Jeff Brohm said. “I think we have a plan for that.”

Western Kentucky football 2016 schedule

Sept. 1 Rice*

Sept. 10 @Alabama

Sept. 17 @Miami (O)

Sept. 24 Vanderbilt

Oct. 1 Houston Baptist

Oct. 6 @Louisiana Tech*

Oct. 15 @Middle Tennessee*

Oct. 22 Old Dominion*

Oct. 29 @Florida Atlantic*

Nov. 5 Florida International*

Nov. 12 North Texas*

Nov. 26 Marshall*

* - Conference-USA games

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