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1. Getting exactly what you expect
[Petrino] really is a lovely hire for WKU, even if he leaves for the first SEC offer that comes his way (perhaps as soon as December). Even if he just stays for one year, he will probably win games and serve as a positive influence on WKU quarterbacks. When you hire Petrino, you better have a backup plan in place (and WKU has at least 10 months to figure that one out), but he can still be a tremendous success in the short-term.
In last year's WKU preview, I professed appreciation for the Hilltoppers hiring Bobby Petrino as basically a minor-league rehabilitation stint before he inevitably (and quickly) left for a major-conference program. Granted, I didn't have any idea that he would end up back at Louisville, a program he cheated on and broke up with less than a decade ago, but I still liked the idea of a Petrino rental as long as WKU had a plan in place to succeed him.
Sure enough, Petrino stayed for one season, won his eight games, kept the program on (increasingly) steady footing, built something decent out of the WKU offense (especially after the first month), and left. And sure enough, WKU had his successor ready to go.
2. A ready-made résumé
You do have to figure WKU administrators were a little bit nervous. The Hilltoppers had offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm lined up as Petrino's successor when Petrino quickly left Bowling Green, but when Petrino indeed took the Louisville job, it had to be tempting for Brohm to go with him. Brohm played at Louisville, and going with Petrino could mean that, if or when the mentor left for yet another job, Brohm could be in line for the head gig at the alma mater.
In the end, however, Brohm stayed at WKU. That's good news for WKU, as his résumé comes straight out of central casting: four years as a Louisville quarterback (team MVP in 1992 and 1993), one as head coach of the Louisville Fire arena football team, four as Louisville's quarterbacks coach (under Petrino), one as Louisville's passing game coordinator, one as Louisville's offensive coordinator. The first seven years of Brohm's coaching career were all based in Kentucky. After three years away (two at Illinois with Paul Petrino, one at UAB with former Petrino assistant Garrick McGee), Brohm came back to the Bluegrass State to serve as Petrino's offensive coordinator at WKU.
This seems just about perfect on paper, and while a lot of good-looking hires end up failing, one has to figure the odds are good that Brohm can sustain most of WKU's recent momentum as a program. After winning just four total games from 2008-10, the Hilltoppers have won at least seven in each of the last three seasons. In terms of F/+ rankings, WKU improved for three straight years, then at least held steady after a coaching change in 2013.
Long-term, Brohm could be a pretty strong hire. But he has some work to do in 2013 if he wants to avoid some temporary regression. WKU has a lot of key pieces to replace.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-4 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 77|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||Kentucky||97||35-26||W||36.5 - 39.9||L|
|7-Sep||at Tennessee||72||20-52||L||23.9 - 43.6||L|
|14-Sep||at South Alabama||68||24-31||L||32.9 - 33.2||L|
|21-Sep||Morgan State||N/A||58-17||W||34.8 - 43.9||L|
|28-Sep||Navy||58||19-7||W||25.8 - 10.3||W||-3.4|
|3-Oct||at UL-Monroe||109||31-10||W||40.9 - 29.8||W||-0.5|
|15-Oct||UL-Lafayette||86||20-37||L||38.0 - 26.8||W||5.7|
|26-Oct||Troy||105||26-32||L||28.4 - 29.4||L||5.5|
|2-Nov||at Georgia State||121||44-28||W||29.3 - 38.1||L||5.6|
|9-Nov||at Army||100||21-17||W||22.8 - 27.1||L||1.6|
|23-Nov||at Texas State||107||38-7||W||34.8 - 7.3||W||4.9|
|30-Nov||Arkansas State||90||34-31||W||35.5 - 24.2||W||4.9|
|Points Per Game||30.8||52||24.6||44|
|Adj. Points Per Game||32.0||41||29.5||80|
3. The proverbial light bulb
WKU didn't exactly start the 2013 season on fire. The Hilltoppers took down Kentucky in the season opener, and taking down an SEC team is never an insignificant accomplishment, even if the team you're conquering is a Kentucky team in serious transition. But the defense was incredibly shaky over the season's first four games, and the offense was both prolific and problematic. In his first three games as WKU's starting quarterback, Brandon Doughty threw eight interceptions -- five against Tennessee and another three against South Alabama. After completing 79 percent of his passes against Kentucky, he completed just 54 percent against UT and USA.
Meanwhile, the defense was atrocious, allowing 6.4 yards per play in the first three games, then allowing 5.1 to Morgan State.
As is often the case with a new coaching regime (and a rather significant shift in philosophy from Willie Taggart's Stanford-esque style to Petrino's), however, the lightbulb came on after a while.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Opponent 40.2, WKU 32.0 (minus-8.2)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 8 games): WKU 31.9, Opponent 24.1 (plus-7.8)
In his final seven starts, Doughty threw nine touchdown passes to only five interceptions while raising his completion rate to 65 percent. And while the defense was still scattershot -- the Hilltoppers allowed 3.2 yards per play to Navy, 5.8 to ULM, 6.3 to Troy, and 2.2 to Texas State -- there were enough good moments to aid in a 7-2 stretch to finish the season.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||49.3%||12||Succ. Rt. +||100.3||60|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.4||83||Def. FP+||96.4||94|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.2||74||Redzone S&P+||90.8||95|
|Q1 Rk||74||1st Down Rk||63|
|Q2 Rk||76||2nd Down Rk||94|
|Q3 Rk||74||3rd Down Rk||39|
4. A few more big plays wouldn't hurt
At Louisville and Arkansas, Petrino never inked blue-chip recruiting classes, but he always had a treasure trove of receivers and a strong quarterback. When his passing game was able to turn short, efficient passes into explosive ones, everything else fell into place.
It was no surprise that the personnel he inherited from Taggart didn't perfect fit his system. His first receiving corps was young -- two of the top three wideouts were freshmen -- with limited big-play ability. Efficient passes remained efficient, but the random big-gainers were mostly missing. WKU was 27th in the country with 217 plays gaining at least 10 yards, but the Hilltoppers were 81st with only 22 plays of at least 30 yards.
Assuming that Brohm and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton (who coached with Brohm at UAB in 2012) employ a lot of the Petrino philosophy, WKU could benefit quite a bit from experience and familiarity. Doughty is less likely to be an interception machine at the beginning of the season, senior receiver Willie McNeal averaged a solid 13.0 yards per catch, and the two heavily used freshmen (Nicholas Norris and Taywan Taylor) are, of course, now sophomores. Norris and Taylor combined to catch 15 passes for 227 yards (15.1 per catch) in November, and it's conceivable that the big plays that were missing for the most part in 2013 could begin to appear more frequently this fall, especially if a junior college transfer like wideout Jared Dangerfield is able to play a key role from the start of the year.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Brandon Doughty||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||246||374||2857||14||14||65.8%||19||4.8%||6.9|
|Nelson Fishback||6'2, 215||Jr.||NR||13||18||174||1||0||72.2%||1||5.3%||8.5|
|Todd Porter||6'4, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)||5||10||76||0||1||50.0%||0||0.0%||7.6|
|Damarcus Smith||6'1, 209||So.||4 stars (5.8)||2||5||33||0||1||40.0%||0||0.0%||6.6|
|Troy Jones||6'2, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
5. QUARTERBACK BATTLE ROYALE (in 2015)!!!!!!
Petrino and Brohm have assured that there is no shortage of candidates at the quarterback position. If Doughty falters, he might struggle to hold onto his starting job, but assuming he doesn't, the line for playing time in 2015 is huge. When Doughty proved pick-prone early in the 2013 season (to put it kindly), Petrino and Brohm tinkered with other options, from then-sophomore Nelson Fishback, to redshirt freshman (and former four-star recruit) Damarcus Smith to true freshman Todd Porter.
Doughty held onto the job, but all three backups are currently still with the program. Plus, Brohm added a junior college transfer, Troy Jones, to the mix. One has to figure that not all four of these backups are around when the 2015 season begins, but it will be interesting to see who seizes the backup role this fall.
|Leon Allen||RB||6'0, 235||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||72||357||5||5.0||4.6||37.5%|
|Anthony Wales||RB||5'10, 190||So.||3 stars (5.6)||17||112||2||6.6||4.5||52.9%|
|Brandon Doughty||QB||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||15||42||0||2.8||2.2||33.3%|
|Damarcus Smith||QB||6'1, 209||So.||4 stars (5.8)||10||51||0||5.1||6.2||40.0%|
|Nelson Fishback||QB||6'2, 215||Jr.||NR||9||41||1||4.6||4.6||33.3%|
|Travis Lock||RB||6'1, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|DeAndre Farris||RB||5'9, 168||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Joe Brown||RB||5'9, 172||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Willie McNeal||WR||5'10, 180||Sr.||2 stars (4.9)||71||46||599||64.8%||18.6%||60.3%||8.4||44||8.5||76.9|
|Nicholas Norris||WR||5'10, 175||So.||2 stars (5.4)||55||33||429||60.0%||14.4%||68.0%||7.8||15||8.4||55.1|
|Taywan Taylor||WR||6'1, 190||So.||2 stars (5.2)||38||24||270||63.2%||10.0%||64.7%||7.1||-23||6.1||34.7|
|Joel German||WR||6'0, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||36||26||339||72.2%||9.4%||51.6%||9.4||41||8.5||43.5|
|Mitchell Henry||TE||6'4, 245||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||36||25||305||69.4%||9.4%||51.5%||8.5||13||8.9||39.2|
|Leon Allen||RB||6'0, 235||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||24||22||202||91.7%||6.3%||50.0%||8.4||-24||8.1||25.9|
|Tim Gorski||TE||6'7, 253||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||19||17||172||89.5%||5.0%||70.6%||9.1||-5||10.1||22.1|
|Tyler Higbee||TE||6'5, 233||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||19||13||169||68.4%||5.0%||66.7%||8.9||16||8.7||21.7|
|Lonnie Turner||WR||5'11, 180||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Jared Dangerfield||WR||6'3, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Antwane Grant||WR||6'1, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Nacarius Fant||WR||5'11, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Nick True||TE||6'5, 240||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Luis Polanco||LG||36||1st All-SBC|
|Cameron Clemmons||RG||6'6, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||31|
|Forrest Lamp||LT||6'4, 296||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12|
|Max Halpin||C||6'3, 295||So.||NR||7|
|Darrell Williams||RT||6'6, 310||So.||2 stars (5.2)||2|
|Derrick Stark||C||6'2, 295||Sr.||NR||0|
|Connor Popeck||OL||6'4, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|John Delaney||OL||6'6, 304||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Charleston Antwine||OL||6'5, 290||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Donald Rocker||OL||6'4, 296||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Justin Martinez||OL||6'3, 275||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Kyle Jones||OL||6'4, 300||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Zack Heath||OL||6'3, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
6. Rushing red flags
It certainly helped that WKU was able to lean on the running game when the passing game faltered in 2013. Antonio Andrews was a workhorse; he carried 304 times with 37 receptions in 2012, then he carried 267 times with 41 catches in 2013. He was both efficient and explosive, and his hands out of the backfield were tremendous. Backups Leon Allen (the presumptive new starter) and Anthony Wales showed decent potential in seven to eight carries per game, but Andrews carried most of the load. And he did so behind a clean line.
WKU's offensive line was one of the best in the mid-major universe at keeping defenders out of the backfield and giving backs a chance to get upfield. Four players with starting experience do return, including three-year starting guard Cameron Clemmons, but three players responsible for 90 starts, including all-conference guard Luis Polanco, are gone. The passing game could compensate for a step backwards with the run, but a shaky line could obviously cause problems across the board.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||40.5%||41||Succ. Rt. +||97.2||68|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||32.1||27||Off. FP+||100.5||55|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.2||63||Redzone S&P+||96.2||73|
|Q1 Rk||68||1st Down Rk||67|
|Q2 Rk||67||2nd Down Rk||92|
|Q3 Rk||104||3rd Down Rk||122|
7. At least the second-stringers return
Three is a scary number to see in the "returning starters" column. WKU must replace its best pass-rushing end (Bar'ee Boyd), its most disruptive tackle (Calvin Washington), all three starting linebackers (Xavius Boyd, Andrew Jackson, Chuck Franks), both starting safeties (Jonathan Dowling, Arius Wright), and a starting cornerback (Tyree Robinson). That's rough, and it makes sustaining WKU's late-season defensive gains rather difficult.
If there's hope for the defense, however, it comes from the simple fact that the second string remains mostly intact. It's one thing to lose three of your top four in a given unit; it's another to lose six of your top eight. In players like tackle Bryan Shorter, linebacker Daqual Randall, and safety Rico Brown, WKU has experienced backups (or part-time starters) ready to play a larger role. Plus, Brohm signed junior college transfers at each level of the defense -- one lineman, two linebackers (including highly-touted Dejon Brown), two defensive backs -- to make sure that second-year defensive coordinator Nick Holt is not without some toys in the toy box.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Gavin Rocker||DE||6'2, 230||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||27.5||4.5%||5.5||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Devante Terrell||DT||6'0, 318||So.||3 stars (5.6)||12||22.0||3.6%||2.0||0.5||0||0||1||0|
|Bryan Shorter||DT||6'2, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||6||12.0||1.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|T.J. Smith||DE||6'2, 240||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||7.5||1.2%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Kalvin Robinson||DE||6'5, 233||So.||2 stars (5.2)||10||5.5||0.9%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|DeMarcus Glover||DE||6'4, 240||So.||2 stars (5.4)||7||4.0||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Raphael Cox||DT||6'3, 270||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||9||3.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jamichael Payne||DT||6'1, 332||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|D'Von Isaac||DT||6'4, 275||So.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Ge'monee Brown||DT||6'2, 305||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Daqual Randall||LB||6'0, 245||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||7||10.0||1.6%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Terran Williams||LB||6'2, 222||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||9.5||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Devante Duclos||LB||6'1, 220||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12||5.0||0.8%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Shaquille Johnson||LB||6'4, 223||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12||1.5||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Drew Davis||LB||6'1, 215||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Dejon Brown||LB||6'3, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Nick Holt||LB||6'1, 230||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|D'Andre Ferby||LB||6'2, 220||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
8. Size up the middle
Mid-major defenses are often forced to rely on speed or creative schemes because of a general lack of size up front. That isn't the case for WKU, at least not in the middle of the defense; the six tackles listed above average 6'2, 298, and linebacker Daqual Randall runs a cool 245 pounds. Granted, size on the perimeter could be an issue -- the four ends above average 6'3, 236, and only one other linebacker is listed at 230 or higher -- but it wasn't easy to push WKU around last year, and it won't be this year either.
So that's one good thing. Now we just have to see if the new starters can come anywhere close to approximating the 42.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, and eight pass break-ups departed seniors managed a year ago.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Cam Thomas||CB||6'1, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||36.5||5.9%||1.5||1||5||10||0||0|
|Rico Brown||S||5'11, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||24.5||4.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Marcus Ward||S||6'3, 204||So.||2 stars (5.3)||7||11.0||1.8%||0||0||1||1||0||0|
|Prince Charles Iworah||CB||5'11, 193||Jr.||NR||12||6.5||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|DeVante Thomas||CB||5'10, 190||Sr.||NR||12||6.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ricardo Singh||S||5'11, 190||Sr.||NR||10||6.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Wonderful Terry||DB||5'10, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Forrest Coleman||DB||6'2, 175||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Martavius Mims||DB||6'2, 183||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
9. Cam Thomas is a stud
WKU's starting defensive backs combined for 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, 13 interceptions, and 24 pass break-ups in 2013, a fantastic total all around. Opponents chose to run the ball as much as humanly possible, and it's easy to see why. WKU's pass rush was decent, and its secondary was awesome. In Jonathan Dowling (a former four-star recruit and an NFL Draft early entry) and Arius Wright, the Hilltoppers had perhaps the best set of play-making safeties at the mid-major level. Both are gone, as is corner Tyree Robinson.
But at least Cam Thomas returns. Thomas is a lockdown corner who defensed 15 passes with only 36.5 tackles -- as I always say, a ratio like that means you're either preventing your man from catching the ball or you're a terrible tackler. I'm leaning on the former with Thomas.
Of course, having a strong cornerback only goes so far if your pass rush falls apart and the rest of your secondary is too young to be effective. There's going to be a lot of pressure on guys like JUCO transfers Wonderful Terry and Forrest Coleman, senior Rico Brown, and youngsters like Marcus Ward to play at a high level very quickly.
|Joseph Occhipinti||6'3, 190||So.||6||32.8||1||2||1||50.0%|
|Joseph Occhipinti||6'3, 190||So.||19||59.1||0||1||0.0%|
|Garrett Schwettman||5'11, 160||Jr.||45-47||11-13||84.6%||2-3||66.7%|
|Anthony Wales||KR||5'10, 190||So.||13||20.9||0|
|Willie McNeal||PR||5'10, 180||Sr.||4||2.8||0|
|Special Teams F/+||54|
|Field Goal Efficiency||51|
|Punt Return Efficiency||56|
|Kick Return Efficiency||35|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||41|
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|13-Sep||at Middle Tennessee||99|
|18-Oct||at Florida Atlantic||103|
|1-Nov||at Louisiana Tech||98|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-13.6% (99)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||84|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-10 / -4.8|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||10 (7, 3)|
10. A test of the upward trajectory
From 2008-12, WKU's F/+ rankings went from 116th to 114th to 99th to 93rd to 69th. The 'Toppers improved consistently under Taggart, then fell to only 77th (thanks mostly to that first month) in Petrino's one year. In terms of upward trajectory, this is impressive for a program so new to the FBS level.
WKU makes the leap to Conference USA this year, and one has to figure that from the standpoint of overall athleticism, the move will go just fine. The big question for 2014 is whether Brohm can avoid at least a one-year setback. He would be excused if it were to happen -- the running game and most of the defense must be rebuilt -- but he could score some major points by avoiding it.
The schedule is navigable if WKU can play at a top-100 level or so. Seven WKU opponents are projected 98th or worse in 2013, and home games against Bowling Green and UTSA are not out of reach. Even with a step backwards, the Hilltoppers could reach bowl eligibility. And in a conference with better bowl ties, they should be more well-positioned to actually make a bowl with seven or more wins, unlike 2011 and 2013.
We'll set the bar at six wins or so. WKU could certainly win more than that, but accounting for some early growing pains is probably a must for the Hilltoppers in 2014.