Helton enters with questions to answer for WKU football

Quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton walks in the Vol Walk outside Neyland Stadium before a game between University of Tennessee and the University of Texas at El Paso Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

Matt Stahl

After WKU fired head coach Mike Sanford on Sunday following a 3-9 season, and with Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton taking the helm as the new head coach, the Hilltoppers have a plethora of questions to answer with its new head coach and the player personnel going into the 2019 season.

When former head coach Jeff Brohm left the program following the 2016 season, several players left with him, including star linebacker T.J. McCollum, who followed Brohm to Purdue. Helton will hope to avoid losing a significant number of players to transfer.

“I think that they too know the reality of this,” athletic director Todd Stewart said of the players after he announced Sanford’s firing. “Mike was the fourth head coach that we’ve had in six years. Now we’ll have another head coach. Change has been a constant in our program.”

One of the first things Helton will have to deal with is finding his starting quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Steven Duncan ended the season as the starter and played very well, winning the team’s final two games after leading it to victory against Ball State earlier in the season.

At the end of the season, redshirt freshman Davis Shanley was backing up Duncan. Shanley started several games early in the season and played particularly well against Louisville, almost leading the team to victory after taking over for Duncan, who started the game and promptly threw an interception.

A wild card in the quarterback battle will be Kevaris Thomas, who just finished his redshirt freshman season, seeing action in several games but mostly executing designed quarterback runs. Thomas was a highly prized recruit coming out of high school, as he was the Hilltoppers’ first four-star signee in program history.

Whoever wins the job will most likely see an increase in workload this season, as Helton’s offense relies more heavily on the pass than Sanford’s, which stressed the run and run-pass options during Sanford’s tenure.

Another question for Helton to answer will be who stays and who goes from the current coaching staff. Sanford’s father, Mike Sanford Sr., and brother-in-law, Matt Mitchell, were also fired.

“I think it puts them in an incredibly awkward situation,” Stewart said of the two family members. “It would me if my son got let go and I was asked to still come in and work. That would be unfair for anybody.”

Bruce Feldman of The Athletic reported Monday that Helton is planning to bring Southern California quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis in as the new offensive coordinator. Ellis was an assistant coach at WKU from 2014-16. He called plays in WKU’s 51-31 Boca Raton Bowl victory over Memphis. Junior Adams is the current offensive coordinator, and Sanford was in charge of playcalling. 

One coach who seems like a candidate to stay is defensive coordinator Clayton White. White’s defense was the highlight of the final two games of the season, coming up with six interceptions and nine sacks combined against Louisiana Tech and Texas-El Paso.

White has maintained lofty goals for the defense, which he outlined during the coaches’ weekly press conference before the LA Tech game.

“We do feel like if we can just continue the growth and continue working the way we’re working … that one of these days it’s going to be the Western Kentucky defense that we all want, to be one of the top defenses in our division, to be one of the top defenses in the country,” White said.


Reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.