Helton was right hire to get Hilltoppers back on track

WKU’s new head coach Tyson Helton speaks during coach his press conference as the new head coach of the Hilltoppers at the Harbaugh Club in Houchens-Smith Stadium Nov. 27 in Bowling Green.

Jeremy Chisenhall

WKU’s hiring of Tyson Helton as the next head football coach has drawn reactions of praise and excitement from both current and former players, but reactions from the fan base haven’t been as positive. 

Helton’s results as an offensive assistant certainly haven’t been perfect. The 41-year-old head coach had the advantage of directing current New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold during his time as Southern California’s passing game coordinator in 2016 and 2017, and that certainly went well. Darnold totaled 7,229 yards, 57 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in those two years. His results as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator in 2018 weren’t as great. UT averaged just 196 passing yards, 129 rushing yards and 22.9 points per game. The Volunteers also finished the year 5-7. 

But WKU’s situation is quite different than the one in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Hilltoppers aren’t going up against SEC defenses. This conference is much more of what Helton is used to from his time here as an offensive coordinator, a time in which WKU racked up an abundance of yards and touchdowns. The Hilltoppers were ranked fifth in the nation in total offense in each of Helton’s two seasons as the offensive coordinator on the Hill (2014, 2015). That included a passing game that ranked second in the nation in total yards in 2014 and first in 2015. The Hilltoppers also ranked sixth in the nation in points in 2014 and second in 2015. 

After the last two years without Jeff Brohm, it’s clear that an infusion of high-powered offense is exactly what WKU needs. Since Brohm’s departure, WKU’s offensive firepower has completely disappeared, especially since the departure of current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Mike White. The Hilltoppers ranked 120th in total offense in 2018. 

“We are going to return to a style of offensive play for which WKU has been known, and I’m very excited that we’re going to move to that,” President Timothy Caboni said at Helton’s introductory press conference. “He understands the expectation is we will compete for championships. Period.”

In addition to Helton’s experience running a high-powered offense on the Hill, there also weren’t any other candidates that really would have made sense for WKU. Many expected the Hilltoppers to show interest in former Mississippi head coach Hugh Freeze, who resigned amidst a scandal he was in the middle of. 

Many also expected athletic director Todd Stewart to show interest in West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. Spavital helped coach redshirt senior Will Grier into the Heisman conversation this season, as he has thrown for 3,864 yards (which ranks fourth in the nation) and 37 touchdowns (which ranks second in the nation). The Mountaineers finished the regular season 8-3 thanks to their explosive offense, meaning Spavital is likely to be a candidate for more highly-touted Power 5 jobs. 

When Stewart looked at his available options, Helton was at the top of the list, and for good reason. When Helton showed interest, there was no real reason for Stewart to evaluate other options. 

“He was the number one person,” Stewart said. “So, when you identify someone as the number one person, and then you begin discussions with them, and it’s validated that they should remain your number one person, and they are as equally interested in you, to me there’s no reason to prolong it and to waste other people’s time.”

Many fear that Helton’s tenure will be similar to Sanford’s. This is Helton’s first head-coaching job, and it was Sanford’s first head coaching job as well. Sanford also had a resume that featured assistant jobs with prominent programs, but the key difference between the two is that Helton has proven he can have success here. He’s helped lead WKU to wins, bowl games and a conference championship. 

Helton is set up to do just fine at the helm of WKU football. He’s got a talented roster thanks to Sanford’s back-to-back highly-touted recruiting classes, as well as the experience and the knowledge to succeed in C-USA.  

Sports Editor Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @JSChisenhall.