Running backs coach prepares for spring game

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers running back Joshua Samuel (25) is handed the ball in the first quarter during the NCAA football game between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on August 31. 

Drake Kizer

WKU football has only two practices left before the Red vs. White game this Saturday, which means it is almost showtime for the offense first-year head coach Tyson Helton has been crafting with offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis for the last four weeks.

Although Helton is remembered for the pass-first mentality he displayed during his tenure as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at WKU from 2014 to 2015, an affinity for the ground game is hidden beneath gaudy stats collected through the air.

WKU averaged 42.8 pass attempts per game during the 2014 season, but Helton also called 33.0 rushes per game. In 2015, pass attempts dropped to 39.6 per contest, while rushing stayed almost exactly the same at 33.1 attempts per contest.

Helton’s offenses averaged over 155 yards per game on the ground during his two seasons on the Hill, which will likely be the expectation once again. Following the abrupt departure of Montario Hardesty on Jan. 30, new running backs coach Garret Chachere has been tasked with pushing a relatively inexperienced group to contribute in an offense seeking balance that’s “tough to deal with” for the opposition.

“I’m expecting from them at the end of the game, at the end of the tape when I grade it — that they play a winning game,” Chachere said Tuesday. “If it was based solely on our group, would it be a win, or would it be a loss?”

The Hilltoppers have six running backs listed on their roster, one less than the seven they had last year after redshirt junior Marquez Trigg left the program on Sept. 18, 2018.

D’Andre Ferby exhausted his last year of eligibility last season, while Conference USA All-Freshman Team member Garland LaFrance moved to receiver this spring after racking up 564 all-purpose yards and 20 receptions as a true freshman in 2018.

Redshirt sophomore Joshua Samuel is the likely starter from the returning players, as he also earned C-USA All-Freshman Team honors in 2018. His 641 rushing yards ranked eighth in C-USA and were the fourth most ever by a WKU freshman.

Another strong candidate for carries is sophomore Gino Appleberry, who scored three touchdowns and finished third on the team with 196 yards rushing in 2018.

Appleberry said he’s worked on understanding fundamentals, which has helped him feel confident pushing his teammates during “up-tempo” practices this spring.

“We want to win,” Appleberry said. “Our motto this year is ‘Just Win.’ So, whatever it takes, we’re just going to do what we got to do. We’re going to put points on the board.”

But neither player will see the field unless they can protect their quarterback.

“Running the ball is the easy part,” Chachere said. “But the hard part is the pass protection when you’re in a pass offense. That becomes the thing that maybe in their game was down the line — I put it up front. And then from there, whoever blocks and pass protects, those are the guys who get the chances to run the ball.”

A familiar face has also returned, as redshirt junior Quinton Baker is back at WKU.

Baker spent last season at Portland State after being removed from the team in April 2018. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Baker will have to sit out in 2019 unless he is granted a waiver. WKU is still awaiting the NCAA’s ruling, Helton said on March 23.

Jakairi Moses is looking for a return to form after an injury kept him out for the entire 2018 season. The redshirt sophomore led WKU running backs with 20 receptions as a true freshman two years ago, totaling 426 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.

Redshirt sophomore KeShawn McClendon and redshirt senior Marcelis Logan, who have combined for only nine games played and one career carry, will provide depth.

Samuel said he’s been trying to lead his “family” by example this spring.

“Every back brings something to the table,” Samuel said. “I’ve actually learned from them, as well. You know, we all got a capable aspect of us. We just build each other up, but we know at the same time we have to compete.”

Although no single player has become the top dog yet, Chachere said he is confident his guys will be hungry and comfortable rising to the occasion once the season begins.

“I’m seeing a group coming together,” Chachere said. “I think our strength is going to be our bond. Not six individual guys, but six guys together. I think we’ll be back-to-back, and that’ll lead to a very successful season for us.”

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