High-flying offense displayed in Hilltoppers’ spring game

WKU quarterback Steven Duncan (10) talks with offensive lineman Parker Howell (68) as they run out of the tunnel before the Red vs White Spring game on April 13. The Red team came up short to the White team, losing 28-21.

Drake Kizer

WKU football began its spring practice schedule on March 12, but just like an April rain shower, the Hilltoppers’ time on the gridiron this spring is over as quickly as it started.

Over the allotted five-week period, which included 14 practice sessions, first-year head coach Tyson Helton worked with new offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis to shape a system that would pay homage to the program’s roots as a vertical passing attack.

The 15th and final practice of the spring — the annual Red vs. White Spring Game — was a golden opportunity for the duo to show off WKU’s new-look offense on a grand stage.

“I love our team, I love their effort,” Helton said postgame. “They handle every day like pros, to be honest with you. They come to work every day, they love each other, so it’s fun to be their head football coach. Really enjoying it right now.”

Helton’s “throw it deep, and throw it deep often” mantra was on full display, as both the Red and White squads combined for 612 passing yards in the scrimmage. The yardage came from six different passers, as each squad used three quarterbacks.
At practice last Thursday, Red team starter Steven Duncan said he worked on his deep-ball timing this spring, which has allowed him to be less reliant on just having a big arm.

“I think that there’s a lot of room to improve, and even checking the ball down would help me out a lot,” the redshirt junior said on April 11. “So, this spring game, if it’s not there, I hope to do that and just better myself in that way.”
Seven of the Red team’s 21 points came on a Duncan check-down to his running back, as redshirt sophomore Jakairi Moses glided into the end zone for a game-opening score.

White team’s starter was graduate
transfer Ty Storey, who threw a pair of
interceptions in the opening quarter
before tossing a 29-yard touchdown just before halftime.
Instead of the former Arkansas player, redshirt sophomore Davis Shanley was the star for the winning side. Shanley threw for 185 yards and two scores, accounting for half of the White team’s 28 points while fulfilling what he called the “toughest job on the field.”

“It comes from Tyson, you know, he demands and expects perfection — especially from the quarterbacks,” Shanley said. “But the quarterbacks also have to emphasize it on everybody else. You know, perfect routes, perfect blocking, perfect everything.”

Although Helton will not make a decision on his starting quarterback until late in the summer at the very earliest, he said the signal callers played a solid all-around game.

“We wanted to rotate guys in there, so it’s always hard to get gelled with one guy when you’re trying to get everybody to play,” Helton said. “But for the most part, they did a nice job, and they managed the offense. Had a couple turnovers that I don’t like to see — interceptions, kind of pressing the ball a little bit. But they made some plays too and made some throws down the field, which was good to see.”

Redshirt senior receiver Quin Jernighan, who snagged a touchdown for the Red squad, had a simple message for his position group prior to the intrasquad scrimmage.

“My goal for the wide receiver group is just come out, have fun and do what we normally do  come out with swag and score touchdowns,” Jernighan said on April 11.
The receivers did just that, as four different wideouts collected 95 yards or more.

Defensive coordinator Clayton White’s unit also flexed its muscles prior to the regular season, as redshirt junior defensive back Gaej Walker scored an 89-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery for the White team, while Red came away with multiple picks, including one in the end zone from redshirt freshman defensive back Beanie Bishop.

“That’s a big emphasis,” Bishop said. “We put [turnovers] number one on our board. ‘Put the ball down’ is our saying, and we value interceptions and turnovers  period.”

As fall draws near, Helton and company can take solace knowing that two evenly matched squads totaled nearly 700 yards and both tallied at least 21 points.

WKU netted that many points per game in 2018, which ranked 118th of 130 schools.

Logically, the Hilltoppers should enjoy a much higher-octane offense when the best players from both sides join forces in the opener against Central Arkansas on Aug. 29.

“I think our guys are playing for each other,” Helton said. “I think we have a good brotherhood here  they believe in the coaching staff. They believe in themselves. So, we’re off to a really good path. We just got to keep taking step after step so we can get back to championship-quality football.”

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