Linebacker corps moves past loss of key members

Alec Jessie

The WKU football team is looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2018 campaign. The linebacker corps is a key group in the improvement of the defense and the team as a whole.

The Hilltoppers have seven linebackers listed on their roster, with redshirt senior Eli Brown and junior Kyle Bailey, a former safety, as the likely starters, heading into the fall after WKU lost a couple major pieces at the position.

Both Masai Whyte and Ben Holt are set to graduate this spring. Holt, who has one year of eligibility remaining, announced his intention to transfer to Purdue on Feb. 14.

Holt led the team in total tackles in 2018 with 116. Whyte was fifth on the team in tackles with 76 and had the third-most sacks with four.

Defensive coordinator Clayton White said replacing two starting linebackers will be a major hurdle for the unit.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” White said after the team’s eighth spring practice. “Those guys played a lot of snaps for us for two seasons. I really think the best thing about it is that those guys taught our guys a lot when they was here before they left, so I hope our guys have a chance to really take that and move on and make the best of their career.”

Brown and Bailey are poised to step up, and experience will not be a problem. Bailey played in every game a season ago as a safety. Brown missed only one, tallying 25 total tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss.

Redshirt sophomore Rex Henderson also appeared in all 12 games, recording three tackles.

A trio of redshirt juniors may also make an impact for the Hilltoppers.

Demetrius Cain has been a pass-rushing linebacker for the last two seasons despite his designation on the roster as a defensive lineman, while Damon Lowe and Clay Davis will be eligible this season after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules.

Redshirt freshman Trey Urquhart and redshirt freshman Mario Wright did not play last season and will get opportunities to get on the field as backups.

Even with the key losses, coach White is confident in his group of linebackers.

“It’s a really good group,” White said about the linebackers. “I love their speed — IQ, [tackles for loss] and their coverage ability, and I think that those guys can do a good job of really bringing us a lot of speed to our defense.”

White has turned to practice reps as a way to prepare his linebackers for the competition in fall and to build on their current strengths.
Brown said the team gets more work done in current practices, and the younger linebackers are getting valuable experience in the process.

“You’re getting a lot of reps,” Brown said. “A lot of reps. We’re doing, like, two groups right now, and you got the starters and the backups getting a lot of reps, you got the freshmen getting in on the other side getting a lot of reps, so everybody’s learning defense, and I think it’s keeping everybody warm and getting the plays right.”

Along with most of former head coach Mike Sanford’s defensive staff, linebackers coach Maurice Crum will return to the Hill for a third season.

Bailey sees the continuity of the defensive staff as a major advantage for the Hilltopper linebackers.

“Having the same coach just really keeps that bond,” Bailey said. “You know exactly what you’re going to be coming to every day, and you know you’re going to be in the same system. Having that same coach just keeps that relationship with him, and then it just keeps the material the same.”

Brown said he is committed to doing whatever it takes to stay on the field the whole 2019 season.

“Playing a whole season, man,” Brown said. “Because you know first year you’re actually getting a chance to start, so staying healthy and finishing the season out as I started.”

Bailey said he wants the linebackers to play fast and nasty in 2019.

“Our goal is just to be the baddest things out there on the field,” Bailey said. “You want to be the fastest things running with the worst intentions.”

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.