WKU secondary looking to take a step forward

WKU’s quarterback Mike White (14) passes the ball to running back Anthony Wales (20) during WKU’s scrimmage Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at L. T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo by Jeff Brown/HERALD

Sam Porter

Over the past three seasons, some of the more memorable WKU football games have been shootouts.

In 2014, the Hilltoppers ended Marshall’s perfect season by a score of 67-66 in overtime, a game in which quarterbacks Brandon Doughty and Rakeem Cato combined for 15 passing touchdowns.

Last season, Lousiana Tech handed WKU its lone Conference USA loss of the season by a score of 55-52, and high-level passers Mike White and Ryan Higgins combined for nearly 800 passing yards and 10 touchdowns through the air.

Two months later, White and company avenged the loss in the C-USA title game, when the two quarterbacks upped the previous combined total to 900 passing yards in a 58-44 WKU victory.

As a result of all the scoring, the WKU defense finished 119th in the nation in passing defense last season. The Hilltoppers return several key players from the secondary, and head coach Mike Sanford seems confident in the group.

“The defensive backfield has been a really pleasant surprise of camp,” Sanford said earlier this month. “They’ve played a lot more top-down, not giving up a lot of downfield throws. I’ve been really impressed with the defensive backfield in general.”

However, improving from the bottom won’t come without some adversity. Sanford announced on Aug. 5 that redshirt senior cornerback De’Andre Simmons had suffered a season ending knee injury. Simmons was expected to start on the opposite side of senior cornerback Joe Brown. Now, several other defensive backs will battle for Simmons’ starting spot.

“So we lost a brother, and thats big. But it’s always the next man up rule,” Brown said.“It’s just one of those things you have to pray on. We’ve got a lot of depth in the defensive backfield. We have some guys that can play. We’ll be ready.”

Brown is the surefire leader in the Hilltopper secondary. The Louisville native led WKU in pass breakups (10 in 2016), and tied for the team lead in passes defended with 11. Brown also recorded two sacks as well as an interception to earn All-Conference USA second team honors.

As far as replacing Simmons, several players will be relied upon looking to fill in for the veteran. One of whom is a much younger player who hasn’t played a snap in a Hilltopper uniform: true freshman Roger Cray. Sanford complimented the young cornerback on his play-making ability since Simmons went out, including a 108-yard interception return during WKU’s first scrimmage of fall camp.

“Roger Cray and De’Andre Farris, particularly Roger Cray, have really made some really nice plays, and we needed that to make up for Simmons,” Sanford said.

“Losing Simmons was a huge loss, especially because we lose experience on one corner of the field. Drell Greene has been really good and Devon Key at the other safety position has been really good.”

Redshirt junior DeAndre Farris and senior cornerback Leverick Johnson will look to battle with the new guy on the block for the second starting spot at cornerback.

Although they lose experience in Simmons, the Hilltopper secondary also returns safety Marcus Ward. Ward expected to finish his career at WKU last season, but an injury in week two ended his season and he was granted a medical redshirt.

The Hilltoppers’ first two opponents are Eastern Kentucky and a road trip to University of Illinois of the Big Ten. Neither team had a quarterback throw for over 10 touchdowns last season. The WKU secondary will get its first true test in the matchup against Lousiana Tech, a team the WKU secondary has struggled against over the past three meetings.

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.