WKU defense looks for growth with same coaching staff

Drake Kizer

Another week of spring practice has elapsed for WKU football, which means the team has only five practices left before the Red vs. White spring football game on April 13.

First-year head coach Tyson Helton and offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis have been busy this spring installing a brand new offense for the Hilltoppers, which is aiming to return to the air raid passing attack that brought the program to its highest heights.

But while WKU’s numerous returning players on offense have been learning from a staff they’ve been around for only a few months, their defensive counterparts have felt right at home.

One week after being named head coach on Nov. 27, Helton announced he would keep four of the five defensive staff members who served under former head coach Mike Sanford together for a third season, including defensive coordinator Clayton White.

“Our offensive staff will bring an exciting brand of football back to the Hill, and our defensive staff is comprised of veterans who have the total trust of our players,” Helton said in a press release on Dec. 4.

Linebackers coach Maurice Crum, defensive ends coach Jimmy Lindsey and defensive tackles coach Kenny Martin returned to the staff along with White. The only new face in the defensive meeting room is safeties coach and special teams coordinator Andy LaRussa, who worked as a special teams analyst at Southern California last year.

White said Thursday that returning almost his entire coaching staff was “huge.”

“Just knowing our players, knowing our system, obviously, and it’s also been great to have new staff members come in, as well, to bring their input and tell us some things that we can improve and things they like and things they don’t like,” White said.

After the first practice on March 12, Helton said he was happy with the older players on defense stepping up. Helton expressed an even stronger sentiment 11 days later.

“I love our defense intensity — they play well for each other, they believe in each other,” Helton said on March 23. “They’re a mature bunch, and they showed it out here today.”

White echoed Helton’s thoughts following the eighth practice.

“They’ve done a good job of retaining the information from the season before,” White said. “The first group has definitely shown some things that we definitely think can help us a lot. I like what I see so far — the speed is definitely there.”

Helton said on Friday his team’s ninth practice, which featured the first full scrimmage, featured competition and “a lot of juice on both sides of the ball.”

“At the end of the day, you want both sides to play really good,” Helton said. “It’s just a matter of trying to identify who are the starting 22, and then, let’s get those guys more reps, and then, the young guys that need to help contribute — we got to get them involved as well.”

White’s defense forced the offense into more turnovers than Helton was comfortable seeing during the scrimmage, Helton said, showcasing flashes of the same brilliance that made the unit a diamond in the rough to end last season.

After a 1-9 start to what ended up being Sanford’s final campaign, the Hilltoppers finished 3-9 after convincing wins against Texas-El Paso and Louisiana Tech.

Many speculated the pair of performances White’s defense put together in those games would be enough to save Sanford’s job. Instead, the staff proved it deserved another year together under Helton by tallying six interceptions and nine sacks combined.

White said he has not made any major changes to the system WKU has been running since his first stint in 2010, but more than just “tweaks” and “some different things” will be necessary for a unit that will take the field without five starters from a season ago.

White said safety Antwon Kincade and nickelback Ta’Corian Darden are “natural” leaders, while defensive linemen Jaylon George, DeAngelo Malone and Juwuan Jones, have been the defense’s front four standouts.

By the season opener, WKU’s defense will have a plan to improve upon 2018, a year that saw the unit finish 82nd in total defense after allowing 422 yards and 27.8 points per game. But before the unit opens its year, it will need to find one thing.

“Just playmakers,” Helton said. “Who are the playmakers on the team, who steps up when the lights turn on?”

The Hilltoppers will find out Aug. 29 against Central Arkansas.

Sports reporter Drake Kizer can be reached at 270-745-2653 and [email protected] Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.