Hilltoppers looking to improve running game during spring practice

Running back Joshua Samuel (25) runs drills with quarterback Davis Shanley (12) on March 6 in Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Alec Jessie

WKU’s first season under head coach Mike Sanford was a turbulent one. The change in staff was made worse by a loss of star power from the Hilltoppers’ roster, and that was made even worse by the fact that the Hilltoppers had the worst run game in the nation.

The Hilltoppers ranked dead last out of 130 teams in FBS in total rushing yards. They had only 791 on the season. WKU only averaged 60 rushing yards per game and 2 yards per carry. The Hilltoppers were also the only team in the country without a single run of 20 yards or more last year.

With no rushing attack to speak of, senior quarterback Mike White held the burden of having to do it all on the offensive end, resulting in predictable play calling.

“Coming off last season, it wasn’t what we wanted,” rising redshirt junior running back Marquez Trigg said. “We weren’t satisfied with what went on. But we definitely worked on it throughout the offseason. We watched film, worked on alignments in practices and working with the linemen to get our chemistry down.”

Rising redshirt senior running back D’Andre Ferby said Sanford has made the ground game much more of an emphasis in spring practice, and fixes are being made throughout the practices.

“Things we watched on film from last year that can easily be fixed, they are being fixed during the spring,” Ferby said. “It’s been a great improvement.”

Sanford has keyed in on the fundamentals of the run game in order to get the most out of his backs.

“The main thing for the running backs is our alignments and making sure we’re getting our eyes and shoulders square,” Ferby said. “Also part of it is physicality and winning one-on-one battles. We want to go out there and win the day.”

“Hitting the hole has been emphasized,” Trigg said. “Actually hitting the hole when you see it rather than hesitating.”

One aspect of the running game that will play to the Hilltoppers advantage next year is numbers. With the position’s physically demanding nature, it’s important to have multiple impact players that can run the football. The Hilltoppers currently have seven running backs on the roster.

“It’s always great to have bodies,” Ferby said. “At the running back position, you’re taking a hit almost every single play. So it’s good to have two or three guys back there who are reliable.”

Trigg says that rather than one guy dominating the touches in the backfield, most of the Hilltopper running backs will be called on to carry the ball throughout 2018.

“I think everyone will pitch in when given the opportunity,” Trigg said. “We push each other every day to get better. It’s not as much of a selfish thing. It’s more like when someone makes a play, go congratulate them. If you’re pushing someone else, we’re all getting better.”

After an injury derailed him in the 2016 season, Ferby said he feels as healthy as ever and is ready to lead the running back group in his final season on the Hill.

“I feel like now I’ve gotten over that mental hump,” Ferby said. “The injury I had was a serious one and mentally it might defer you a little bit. But now getting that year under my belt, I’m ready to attack this.”

The Hilltoppers’ rushing attack will have to improve without the help of rising junior Quinton Baker. Baker, who was a member of the Conference USA All-Freshman team in 2016, was dismissed from the team for a repeated violation of team rules, the program announced on Saturday night.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.