Mark Story

Five good questions about the 2017 WKU Hilltoppers football team

New Western Kentucky University football coach Mike Sanford inherits a Hilltoppers program that has won 28 of its last 34 games with three bowl victories and two Conference-USA championships.
New Western Kentucky University football coach Mike Sanford inherits a Hilltoppers program that has won 28 of its last 34 games with three bowl victories and two Conference-USA championships. Western Kentucky University Athletics

Five good questions about the 2017 Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers:

1.) In his first year as WKU head coach, can Mike Sanford keep the good times rolling?

Sanford, 35, has bought the stock “Western Kentucky football” at a very high valuation. The new WKU head man inherits from Jeff Brohm a program that has won 28 of its last 34 games, including three straight bowl victories and back-to-back Conference-USA titles.

Under Brohm, the Hilltoppers were boffo entertainment, too, averaging more than 44 points per game all three seasons.

Word out of Bowling Green is that Sanford might run the ball a bit more than Brohm, now head man at Purdue. But Western fans will continue to expect offenses that light up scoreboards while winning at a “Brohm-ian level.”

Sanford comes out of the Boise State line of coaches, so an imaginative offense should be in his coaching DNA.

Still, the new WKU coach has a high bar to clear.

2.) How does Western replace the lost fire power of star wide receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris and running back Anthony “Ace” Wales?

Taylor (98 catches, 1,730 yards, 17 touchdowns) and Norris (76 receptions, 1,318 yards, 14 TDs) were one of the most potent receiving combinations in the country in 2016. Wales (1,621 yards rushing, 27 TDs) was one of the nation’s most productive running backs.

They are all gone.

At wide receiver, former Lafayette standout Lucky Jackson (26 catches, 395 yards) and 2013 Kentucky Mr. Football Nacarius Fant (29 catches, 407 yards), the ex-Bowling Green star, will get first chances to become WKU’s new go-to receivers.

Western Kentucky wide receiver Lucky Jackson, a former standout at Lafayette High School, is being counted on to help the Hilltoppers replace the production of graduated star wideouts Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris. Austin Anthony Associated Press

In the backfield, D’Andre Ferby is back after being injured last season on his first carry of the year. Two years ago, Ferby ran for 650 yards and 11 touchdowns. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, the Smyrna, Tenn., product is known as a pile mover but has shed some 20 pounds hoping to become more explosive.

Former Ashland Blazer star Quinton Baker (who is suspended for the season opener against Eastern Kentucky due to involvement in an offseason altercation at a WKU fraternity house) and ex-Glasgow standout Marquez Trigg figure to rotate with Ferby.

3.) What does Mike White do for an encore?

Stepping in last season in place of record-setting Brandon Doughty as Western quarterback, White thrived. The 6-4, 225-pound transfer from South Florida threw for 4,363 yards and 37 touchdowns (vs. only seven interceptions) while completing a robust 67.3 percent of his passes.

As a result, White’s name is oft mentioned in 2018 NFL Draft analysis.

Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White hugged teammate Quinton Baker, the former Ashland star, during WKU’s spring game. Austin Anthony Associated Press

This year, rather than filling the shoes of an all-time Western great, White’s challenge is adapting to a different coaching staff and succeeding without his main playmakers (see above) from a year ago.

If the Pembroke Pines, Fla., product comes anywhere close to matching his statistics from a year ago it will be an exceedingly impressive achievement.

4.) How does WKU compensate for the losses of standout linebackers Keith Brown and T.J. McCollum?

With ex-defensive coordinator Nick Holt now at Purdue with Brohm, former North Carolina State assistant Clayton White is running the defense in Bowling Green. Where Holt used a base 4-3, White is expected to feature a 4-2-5 alignment.

Former North Carolina State assistant Clayton White will be running the defense for new Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford. Western Kentucky University Athletics

Since Western lost its top two linebackers (Keith Brown and T.J. McCollum) from last season but returns a bevy of experienced defensive backs, the switch to a scheme that puts more secondary players on the field should benefit the Hilltoppers.

Losing senior corneback De’Andre Simmons for the season because of a knee injury hurts WKU’s DB depth, however.

5.) Can Mike Sanford turbocharge acceptance of his new coaching regime by giving Western fans a victory over a power-five conference foe?

The previous three WKU head coaches all scored a victory over a power-five conference foe. Willie Taggart beat Kentucky in 2012. Bobby Petrino bested UK in 2013. Jeff Brohm won at Vanderbilt in 2015.

Last year, Western was a failed two-point conversion try in overtime away from a fourth victory over the SEC, falling to Vanderbilt 31-30 in overtime.

This year, the Toppers play road games at Illinois (3-9 in 2016) of the Big Ten on Sept. 9 and Vandy (6-7) of the SEC on Nov. 4.

The Hilltoppers have never beaten a Big Ten foe, but have been close twice in recent years. Western lost at Illinois 42-34 in 2014 and fell at Indiana 38-35 in 2015.

It would not be shocking if Western won at least one of its 2017 games vs. power-five foes. In terms of building momentum for a new coaching staff, doing so would be huge.