Wide receiver biggest question as Spring game approaches

Junior wide receiver Nacarius Fant (1) catches a pass for a touchdown during WKU’s 30-31 loss to Vanderbilt Saturday, September 24, 2016 at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green.

Sam Porter

Senior wide receivers Nacarius Fant and Kylen Towner made their presence known on special teams a year ago.

The duo combined for four combined touchdowns on punt and kick returns, and if it wasn’t for Fant’s torn ACL that kept him from playing in the final five games, that touchdown number easily could’ve ben higher.

However, if the Hilltopper pass attack is going to be anywhere near as productive as last season, Fant and Towner will need to be just as productive at the wide receiver position as they were on special teams last season.

The losses of former WKU receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris make the wide receiver position group one of the more inexperienced positions on WKU’s depth chart.

The Hilltoppers receivers combined for over 4,200 receiving yards last season. Roughly 1,000 of those receiving yards came from players returning next season.

“There’s only a few receivers that played significant time,  and one of them is out with an injury right now,” WKU offensive coordinator Junior Adams said. “They’re all young for the most part other than Towner and Fant, but they’re picking it up. They’re doing a good job of getting in there and learning this offense. They’ve all had their days.”

Fant is the leading returning receiver on the Hilltopper roster. The former Kentucky Mr. Football winner tallied 29 catches for 407 yards and two touchdowns in nine games.

Due to Fant’s injury, which  is expected to keep him sidelined until the fall, redshirt sophomore Lucky Jackson has been playing as the number one wide receiver in the majority of spring football. The Lexington native saw action in all 14 games last season and tallied 26 catches for 395 yards and two touchdowns.

Serviceable wide outs Towner and redshirt sophomore Quin Jernighan combined for just 10 catches in 2016, but will be expected to play bigger roles this season.

Redshirt freshmen Jachour Pearson and Xavier Lane are also expected to compete for playing time after redshirting their first season on the Hill.

“When there is big shoes to fill, there always has to be someone who can fill in,” Jackson said. “You can’t have rebuilding time. It’s time to reload. Hopefully there won’t be any let-offs. Jachour and Xavier will definitely have their opportunities to step up and make big plays as young guys. Its always good to have those guys you know you’ll have for a few years.”

As big as an impact the receiver position has had on WKU football recently, the receivers won’t be asked to rack up stats quite like last year’s receiving core did.

First-year head coach Mike Sanford’s offense features a more balanced attack, meaning the amount of run and pass plays are expected to be more even.

If redshirt senior running back Leon Allen is healthy for week one, WKU will feature four running backs that have started at least one game in a Hilltopper uniform.

The offensive line loses key names such as Forrest Lamp and Max Halpin, but they’re still expected to be a strength on WKU’s offense. With a strong offensive line and four experienced running backs, Sanford could very well establish the ground game first, and then set up the passing game.

“We’re going to be pro style,” Adams said. “We really want to hang our hat on attacking. By attack I mean we want to attack on the run game and be downhill because everything starts up front. We still want to be able to attack vertically down the field in the pass game. You may see some jet sweeps, some read options, and some short and long down the field throws. The most important thing is that we’re going to cater to our personnel.”

In just nine days, WKU will have its annual Red-White Spring game at Smith Stadium. Hilltopper fans will get their first glance at Sanford’s new offense and an almost brand new receiving core.  

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