TOPPER EXTRA: Underclassmen emerge as playmakers for defense

WKU defensive Devon Key celebrates with his teammates during the Hilltoppers’ 22-23 loss to Louisiana Tech University on Saturday Sept. 16, 2017 at L.T. Smith Stadium.

Tyler Mansfield

For some time now, WKU has been known for its dominating play on the offensive side of the ball. However, so far into the 2017 season, the Hilltopper defense is receiving more recognition than it’s accustomed to, and it wouldn’t be where it is without the help of a handful of underclassmen.

Although WKU has already suffered two losses this year – including last week’s 23-22 heartbreaker against Louisiana Tech – redshirt freshman defensive back Devon Key said the defense and the entire team would bounce back.

“We had a good week of practice. We just didn’t finish late in the game,” Key said. ”I just feel like we have to come out and play our game just like we have been the last three games. Even though that we’re 1-2 right now, I feel like we’ll bounce back strong.”

Key is one underclassman that has emerged as a playmaker for the Hilltoppers (1-2 overall, 0-1 Conference USA). With redshirt senior safety Marcus Ward still sidelined with injury from last season, the Lexington native has stepped up to become WKU’s primary player at that position.

Along with Key, redshirt sophomore linebacker Ben Holt also stepped up against LA Tech and made four tackles. Holt, who is the son of former WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt, said he and the defense just have to keep moving in the right direction.

“Our mindset is that we can’t focus on the previous weekends,” Holt said. “You’ve gotta keep the best foot forward, so now we’re gonna go and try and get this win [against Ball State] and keep going into conference play.”

As WKU looks to avoid losing three consecutive games for the first time since 2012 when it hosts Ball State at 6 p.m. on Saturday, the defensive unit will look to continue to make progress.

The Topper defense currently ranks 35th against the run (113.3 yards per game allowed), 44th in scoring (20 points per game allowed), 54th in passing efficiency (118.28), 58th in total yards per game allowed (357.7) and 82nd in passing (244.3 yards per game allowed).

Additionally, another pair of underclassmen in freshman defensive back Antwon Kincade (eight total tackles, four solo) and freshman defensive lineman DeAngelo Malone (10 total, three solo) have played significant roles in WKU’s success this year.

With the defensive players’ minds set on continuing to make improvements, Key said it’s important for the younger guys to work their hardest and be playmakers.

“It’s really important for us to step up on the defensive side of the ball, just because the older guys need to trust us a little bit more,” Key said. “So we’re building trust with them since they’ve been here four years and this is our first time starting in a college game. So we’ve gotta build that trust and I think it’s there.”

As for Holt the Bowling Green High School product has bought into new WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White’s system. After playing under his father for his first two seasons, Holt said White has done a great job of preparing the defense.

“It’s been extremely easy,” Holt said of transitioning into White’s system. “He’s done a great job of teaching it to us and helping us understand it fully. Coach White sets the tempo all week. We start out in turnover circuit, and we just keep it going all week. He does a really good job of getting us ready, so we can play our butts off.

“Clearly it’s worked out really well for us,” he said.

WKU hopes its defense continues to make strides, but it’ll most certainly have its hands full competing against Ball State’s stout defensive squad. The Cardinals feature senior defensive end Anthony Winbush, who has 6 ½ sacks to lead the nation.

Along with Winbush’s impressive sack total, he has already tallied 20 total tackles on the year, with 10 of those being solo.

As a whole, BSU’s defense allows just 22.7 points per game while it ranks 41st overall in passing yards allowed per game (184), 60th in total yards allowed per game (358.3) and 96th in rushing yards allowed per game (174.3).

“We’ll just have to get after them all day on defense,” Holt said. “Make them not wanna be here and just really get after them.”

Reporter Tyler Mansfield can be reached at (270) 935-0007 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @_TylerMansfield.