Hilltoppers returning to offensive roots in spring football

WKU wide receiver Lucky Jackson (11) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the WKU – EKU football game on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at L.T. Smith Stadium.

Drake Kizer

The first two weeks of spring practice have come and gone for WKU football, leaving only eight more practices before the Red vs. White spring football game on April 13.

Former Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton was chosen to lead the downtrodden Hilltoppers into a new era, but Helton will not really have to reinvent the wheel to find success during his first year as a head coach.

When Helton was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at WKU during 2014 and 2015, the Hilltoppers averaged 372 passing yards per game, 155 rushing yards per game and ranked fifth in the nation in total offense in each of those two seasons.

Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis, who Helton hired away from Southern California, worked alongside Helton during those two seasons and also called plays in WKU’s 51-31 win over Memphis in the 2016 Boca Raton Bowl.

Taking over an offense ranked 120th in total offense last season, Helton and Ellis have been working all spring to get WKU back to its previous heights.

Following the first practice on March 12, Helton said he was impressed with his squad’s knowledge of a brand-new offense.

“They looked like they knew what they were doing out here,” Helton said.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but for the first day, I was really happy for them.”

A week later on March 19, Ellis said the offense was working to master the system.

“Obviously there’s a ton of mistakes that we get to go review on during film,” Ellis said. “But so far they’re trying hard and playing well.”

Helton said Saturday that the Hilltoppers’ sixth practice, which featured an intrasquad scrimmage, showcased the growth of his offensive players.

“I thought they made tremendous strides today,” Helton said. “You’re always going to have mistakes here or there, but for the most part, I thought they’ve showed that they’re making a lot of improvement. We completed a lot of deep balls, which is kind of the X factor, and we need to do that often.”

Helton said he has seen a “well-oiled machine” on defense, which was what he was hoping for when he kept defensive coordinator Clayton White and most of Sanford’s defensive staff together for a third season.
The veteran group did not have to change schemes, which has resulted in consistency, maturity and the ability to be unyielding to a relatively inexperienced offense.

“Defense was a little bit ahead of the offense, but the offense was catching up really fast,” Helton said Saturday. “I saw a lot of big plays on offense, which was great — saw a lot of big stops on defense when we needed it. So, I like where we’re headed.”

Helton mentioned several position groups as standouts on offense, namely the wide receivers and quarterbacks.

Among wideouts, redshirt senior Lucky Jackson has shined so far this spring. Helton also mentioned highly touted freshman receiver Manny Allen as an early standout.

“I like our receiving corps,” Helton said Saturday. “They’ve practiced extremely hard, and they make plays.”

Jackson said the Hilltoppers have adapted to meet Helton’s high expectations for them.

“Just taking initiative,” Jackson said about the adjustment. “Taking it upon ourselves to put in work outside of the stadium — getting in the book, studying — just working outside of the allotted times that we got.”

No matter how effective the offense Helton and Ellis have coordinated for WKU is, the duo will have to decide on a starting quarterback to lead it

Aug. 31, when Central Arkansas will visit Houchens-Smith Stadium for the season opener.

Redshirt junior Steven Duncan and Arkansas graduate transfer Ty Storey have been the talk of WKU’s quarterback race so far, but redshirt sophomore Davis Shanley and redshirt freshman Kevaris Thomas might also get some serious consideration.

Ellis said Storey’s February arrival means mastery of the offense must come quickly.

“Being able to run a little bit, being able to get himself out of trouble, quick hands, getting the ball out fast and deep-ball accuracy,” Ellis said about Storey’s film.

“Wins,” Ellis said about Duncan’s film. “I love his competitiveness, I love how hard he plays. You know, I think there’s a lot of stuff we can improve on, but his intangibles and what he brings to the part is solid and really good, and I think we can build on that.”

Duncan said he is excited to be a part of a new offense this season.

“We’re throwing the ball downfield and taking shots, and we’re being explosive with it, and, you know, we’re not shying away from it.”

Helton has not been shy about his “show-me” mentality with his players regarding their playing time, but the first-time head coach must also prove himself. Helton and his staff have a simple plan to do just that.

“Throw it deep, and throw it deep often,” Helton said. “We’ve got to be a big-play team — we’ve got to be able to make plays and put points on the board, so that’ll be what we’re trying to do.”

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