Sanford optimistic about progress

Sam Porter

At the conclusion of fall camp last week, Hilltopper players and coaches made one thing  clear: this WKU football team is ready to play somebody other than themselves.

The Hilltoppers just put three weeks of Fall camp behind them and head coach Mike Sanford feels like his team is progressing in the right direction.

“We came out of camp feeling like we’re a team that is on the ascent rather than the descent,” Sanford said. “During days 15-20, you see whether a camp is wearing them down or they are getting after camp–and I feel like we were a team that got after camp.”

Senior quarterback Mike White mentioned he believes the offense has gone through the necessary adversity through fall camp. Early on, White said there were times when the offense was stalling. The offense came together so players could meet to discuss struggles and work on a solution. White mentioned since the meeting, the offense has taken on a new identity and it showed during the team’s intrasquad scrimmage this past Saturday.

“Offensively, we looked great. We went out there on the first drive and drove right down the field,” White said. “We executed everything and scored right away. The next drive, our second offense did the same thing. We had playmakers all over the place. I think everyone touched the ball.”

WKU brings back four running backs who have started at least one game in a Hilltopper uniform as well as a flurry of wide receivers battling to see the field. Although there’s no clear-cut starter at either skill position, there’s no doubt about who will be the man directing those weapons.

White returns after directing the No. 1 scoring offense (45.5 PPG) in the nation last season. The South Florida transfer threw for 4,363 yards and 37 touchdowns to just seven interceptions in 2016, earning him Preseason C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. Putting up those same numbers won’t be easy without weapons like Taywan Taylor, Nicholas Norris and Anthony “Ace” Wales, but White is confident with the personnel expected to fill those shoes.

“I think one of our biggest strengths is that you don’t really have a certain person to game plan for,” White said. “We could go on the field with four wideouts. The next play we could go out there with three tight ends and get them the ball. We can get our backs in the passing game. Our depth is one thing that’s going to help us a lot.”

Defensively, Sanford was pleased the defense didn’t give up any big plays down the field, something the Hilltopper defense has been prone to do over the past three years. The Hilltopper secondary brings back key names such as senior cornerback Joe Brown as well as safety Marcus Ward who returns after suffering a season ending injury last year against Alabama.

Another key returner in the Hilltopper secondary is redshirt sophomore Ta’Corian Darden, who Sanford mentioned had improved significantly since his arrival on campus. The Russellville native entered fall camp as a walk-on, but Sanford and company decided to put “Coco” on scholarship when the opportunity arrived.

“He’s not a flashy player, but he makes flashy plays,” Sanford said about Darden. “That’s what I love about him.”

“Honestly, I think he has been one of our most valuable players throughout camp, so it was a no brainer. Once a scholarship became available, Coco was no doubt the guy. It made it easy for me knowing I’ve wanted to put him on scholarship since the first day of camp.”

The Hilltoppers will finally get the chance to play someone other than themselves when they open the season next Saturday at home against Eastern Kentucky University. It will be the first time the two teams have met since 2008.

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