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WKU’s re-rebuild has a pretty good chance ... eventually

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The Mike Sanford era in Bowling Green ended as soon as it began, but Tyson Helton doesn’t inherit a destitute two-deep.

Florida International v Western Kentucky
Joshua Samuel
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

You have to give Mike Sanford this: he wasn’t coaching like he was about to lose his job. WKU’s now-former head coach redshirted quite a few of the more highly-touted members of his 2018 recruiting class last season, and after a rugged (to put it as kindly as possible) midseason stretch, his Hilltoppers played two of their best game of the year in their final two games.

In the end, a few things conspired against Sanford. They were too much to overcome.

For starters, Jeff Brohm set the bar crazy-high. WKU went 23-5 in 2015-16 before Brohm left. The Hilltoppers peaked at 19th in S&P+ in 2016. Expectations were reaching an impossible level.

Sanford just didn’t coach well enough. I mean, it’s relevant, yeah? He seemed to make a lot of “change for change’s sake” moves in his first year, and while 2017 regression was guaranteed, WKU did more than just regress. The Hilltoppers fell from 19th to 88th in S&P+ and from 11 wins to six. They then fell to 113th and 3-9 in 2018. It was fair to expect more than that.

You could argue the burden of proof for firing someone after just two years is stark enough that Sanford probably should have gotten a third, especially when you’re not exactly flush with football money and Sanford is owed a $1.2 million buyout.

But fire him, WKU did, and it’s hard to object too much. I mean, this chart tells a story:

Now it’s Tyson Helton’s turn in a post-Brohm universe.

Helton’s is five years older than Sanford, but his résumé reads pretty similar. Sanford had three years of offensive coordinator experience, two at the power conference level; Helton has three as well, with one at a P5 school. In 2010, they were both G5 position coaches, in 2014 they were both starting their first OC gigs.

The main difference, as it were: Helton was an OC at Western Kentucky for the first two years of Brohm’s tenure, until he joined his brother Clay at USC in 2016. He has WKU-specific experience, and from the glory days, no less.

He inherits more than one might imagine from a program that collapsed so suddenly. The 2018 WKU squad played a freshman and sophomore at quarterback, a freshman running back, a lot of sophomores in the receiving corps, a mostly sophomore offensive line, freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line, and mostly sophomores in the secondary. The Hilltoppers are 14th in returning production at the moment, and there’s at least some semblance of upside among the returning producers, too.

Still, there’s a hefty climb back up from 113th. We’ll see if Helton’s two previous years in Bowling Green give him insight that Sanford lacked.


Helton isn’t the only coach returning to WKU. Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis was a quality control coach, then position coach, under Brohm before joining Helton at USC in 2017. His first key duty will be picking out the right QB.

He’s got a couple of interesting options, partly because of Drew Eckels’ injury issues. Eckels began 2018 as the starter, but he only made it through three games, leaving Sanford to cycle between sophomore Steven Duncan and freshman Davis Shanley. Shanley was solid in a tight loss to Louisville but got hurt the next week. Duncan, suspended to start the season, looked decent against Marshall, then Shanley returned and struggled. Then Duncan, then Shanley, etc.

By the end, Shanley had better efficiency numbers (plus-1 percent marginal efficiency to minus-4 percent, 68 percent completion rate to 58), and Duncan had made both more big plays and more mistakes. That Shanley was steadier and younger suggests his odds of winning the job are solid, but both guys have to hold off redshirt freshman Kevaris Thomas as well. A mid- to high-three star prospect, Thomas was the jewel of Sanford’s 2018 recruiting class. He’s also enormous (6’4, 250), which is fun.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic
Steven Duncan
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the spectacular instability at quarterback, you have to grade the skill corps’ production on a curve. But the production of two players in particular was pretty good even without a curve.

Running back Joshua Samuel found a nice rhythm in his freshman season, rushing for 233 yards in his first six games (5.0 per carry) and 408 in his next six (5.6). The RB room is crowded with youngsters — sophomores Jakairi Moses (injured for all of 2018), Gino Appleberry Jr., and Garland LaFrance will vie for the backup role — but Samuel stood out.

Around the time Samuel figured things out, so did Jacquez Sloan. After a slow start, the 5’9 junior-to-be caught 23 balls for 378 yards (16.4 per catch) over a five-game stretch before injuring his knee. (Are you catching on that injuries were a bit of an issue?)

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky
Jacquez Sloan
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Upside was questionable outside of Sloan; the two leading returnees in the receiving corps are Lucky Jackson and Quin Jernighan, who combined for just 10.9 yards per catch and a 42 percent success rate. But Sloan’s a play-maker, and Helton loaded up on receivers in his first recruiting class, inking four three-star WRs — including high-three-star Manny Allen, a one-time Nebraska commit who listed a USC offer — and a three-star TE.

The good news is two-fold. First, a run of bad injuries luck can also create pretty good depth of experience down the line, and a lot of guys are returning from injury. Second, the only seniors I mentioned above are Jackson and Jernighan. Samuel, Sloan, and the QB of choice will all be scheduled to return in 2020.

More good news: the line was the offense’s statistical bright spot last year — WKU was 46th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 83rd in sack rate (not great, but better than most of the team’s stats) — and returns everyone, including second-team all-conference tackle Miles Pate. Pate and left tackle Parker Howell are seniors, but once again, most of the key contributors should return for 2020.

In just two years, WKU sunk from ninth to 120th in Off. S&P+. I’d be surprised if the Toppers weren’t back into at least the top 75 within the next couple of years. That’s something, right?


WKU’s high points have been mostly offense-driven. In 12 FBS seasons, the Hilltoppers have topped 80th in Def. S&P+ only twice: 69th in 2012 (Willie Taggart’s second bowl run at WKU) and 46th in 2016. By 2018, they were back to 83rd — far better than the O, but not particularly good.

The continuity isn’t quite as strong on this side of the ball, but it’s not bad. WKU has to replace contributors in linebackers Ben Holt and Masai Whyte, safety Drell Greene, and cornerback DeAndre Farris, but almost literally everyone else returns. That includes:

  • Nickel back Ta’Corian Darden, the havoc leader with four tackles for loss and 14 passes defensed
  • Safety Devon Key (three TFLs, nine PDs)
  • Ends DeAngelo Malone (nine TFLs, six sacks, two passes defensed, two forced fumbles) and Juwuan Jones (six TFLs, five sacks)
  • Tackle Jaylon George (six TFLs, three sacks)
  • Linebacker Eli Brown, who managed to make 10.5 run stuffs among his 20 tackles as a backup.
NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Louisville
DeAngelo Malone (10)
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The pass defense was maybe the best thing WKU had. The Hilltoppers were a decent 65th in Passing S&P+ and 59th on passing downs thanks to a solid pass rush and a secondary that limited opponents to a 57 percent completion rate (34th). It was a convincing enough performance that Helton elected to retain coordinator Clayton White in the same role.

There are quite a few safeties in the pipeline, including Darden, one of C-USA’s best. Plus, the next two CBs on last year’s list (Dionté Ruffin, Roger Cray) are both back, and mid-three-star JUCO Trae Meadows could carve out a niche. And thanks to the play of the starters, Sanford didn’t have to dip into his well of five three-star freshmen, all of whom kept their redshirts. (Helton signed three more three-star DBs for this class as well.) Competition in the back of the defense should be pretty strong.

The run defense was a problem last year, and that’s where most of this year’s losses could be felt. Holt was easily the most disruptive run defender on the team, and losing tackles Evan Sayner and Julien Lewis could lead to iffy depth there if youngsters or JUCO transfer Marcus Bragg don’t step up.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Louisville
Ta’Corian Darden (15)
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

A Kentucky transfer, Brown could be key with both Holt and Whyte gone. He hinted at massive play-making potential in a backup role, but that must grow alongside more snaps. He’s basically the only linebacker with any experience, though three-star redshirt freshmen Mario Wright and Trey Urquhart await opportunities.

Special Teams

Sanford certainly didn’t help his cause in special teams. In two years, WKU fell from 43rd to 83rd to 122nd in Special Teams S&P+. Considering four of 2018’s losses came by a touchdown or less, merely having decent special teams could have saved Sanford’s job. Kicker Ryan Nuss went a combined 1-for-4 on FGs, for instance, in three-point losses against Maine and Louisville.

In Garland LaFrance, Helton does inherit a potentially excellent return man, but finding some competition for Alex Rinella might be good. Rinella averaged just 37.5 yards per punt and ranked 125th in punt efficiency, and he’s the incumbent in the kickoffs and place-kicking department (he took over for the 3-for-7 Nuss midseason), as well.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Central Arkansas NR 15.5 82%
7-Sep at Florida International 88 -7.8 33%
14-Sep vs. Louisville 87 -5.9 37%
28-Sep UAB 106 3.7 58%
5-Oct at Old Dominion 119 6.5 65%
12-Oct Army 80 -4.7 39%
19-Oct Charlotte 120 11.7 75%
26-Oct at Marshall 77 -9.9 28%
2-Nov Florida Atlantic 79 -4.8 39%
9-Nov at Arkansas 48 -17.2 16%
23-Nov at Southern Miss 74 -11.1 26%
30-Nov Middle Tennessee 104 3.2 57%
Projected S&P+ Rk 101
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 114 / 81
Projected wins 5.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.5 (71)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 90
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / -0.5
2018 TO Luck/Game +1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 76% (81%, 72%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 4.2 (-1.2)

Thanks to returning production and a doable schedule, there’s no ruling out a solid debut for Helton. S&P+ projects the Hilltoppers to improve to 101st overall, and that’s enough to garner a 6-6 projected record. The schedule features five opponents projected 100th or worse and one two projected higher than 74th

Getting back to six wins after such a swift collapse would be a lovely shot in the arm. Still, I can’t help but think about 2020 when I’m looking at this team’s likely two-deep. The Hilltoppers will lose only a small handful of key seniors (Pate and Howell on offense, Darden, George, and Brown on defense), and the odds are good that a few of the many three-star WR/DB signees from 2018 and 2019 will find roles this fall. WKU should have both team speed and experience a year from now.

I could make the case that buying Sanford out after two years was too much of a short-term decision for a program that needs to think in the long-term, especially since WKU replaced Sanford with someone with a résumé facsimile. But there’s upside here, even if Helton gets to take advantage of it instead.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.