Sanford era underway as WKU begins spring practice

Quarterback Mike White throws the ball during the Hilltoppers Red-White game on Saturday April 23, 2016 at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky.

Sam Porter

Spring football starts this week which means a new era has officially begun for WKU Football.

First year Head Coach Mike Sanford will look to continue the recent success of the WKU football program after taking over for current Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm. Brohm led WKU to a 23-5 record over the past two years including back to back C-USA championships and bowl wins.

For many players on WKU’s roster, Sanford will be their third head coach during their time on the Hill.

“Anytime there is a new staff that comes in, there is an opportunity for getting playing time,” senior defensive lineman Derik Overstreet said. “Especially right now, it’s a time for everybody to show what they have. If someone felt like they didn’t have the opportunity to play last year, they have it now.”

Last season, the biggest question entering spring football began with the quarterback position. With Mike White returning for his senior season after a stellar junior year, the biggest question entering spring ball in 2017 pertains to the pieces around the quarterback position such as the offensive line and wide receiver positions.

Forrest Lamp and Taywan Taylor were both key pieces to WKU’s offensive success,  and both are projected to be drafted in the early rounds of May’s NFL Draft. One of the bigger challenges this spring will be replacing those players.

“Going through this offseason we’ve heard a lot of ‘You lost a lot. How are you going to replace that?’ It’s the next man up mentality,” White said. “We have a lot of young receivers like Lucky Jackson and Quin Jernigan who have seen the field. They just didn’t get the production because you have guys like Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris in front of them. It’s not like we’re coming in with brand new guys. We’ll find a center. We have a bunch of young guys that I have a lot of confidence in. They’ve worked their tails off this offseason. I know we’ll find the right guys.”

Another position still in question is at the running back position. Ace Wales graduated after an impressive senior season, opening the doors for several younger backs such as sophomore Quinton Baker, redshirt sophomore Marquez Trigg and redshirt junior D’Andre Ferby,  who returns from a season ending shoulder injury that he sustained in his first carry of the 2016 season.

Also in the running back mix is a very familiar face that Hilltopper fans haven’t seen in a while. Leon Allen hasn’t seen the field since September 10 of 2015 after suffering a gruesome leg injury in WKU’s match against Louisiana Tech. However, Allen was granted a medical redshirt and is expected to be ready to play in 2017 after not playing for almost two full seasons. In 2014, Allen finished seventh nationally with 2,018 yards from scrimmage and will look to get back to his “old” self in time for the season opener.

“The ongoing challenge with Leon is the full rehabilitation with his knee,” Sanford said. “It’s been a situation where he’s taken a couple step forwards and then a step back. That’s expected with the significance of his injury. We’re supporting him towards his goals of getting his degree and getting back on the field and finishing what he started. We’re working hard to make sure he accomplishes that.”

The Hilltopper defense will also have two new leading tacklers next season. Linebacker Keith Brown and defensive back Brandon Leston both graduated, which will force other players to  step up. Notable names going into spring include linebackers Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Ben Holt, who saw significant playing time in the Boca Raton Bowl.

“I feel really good about our linebacker corps,” Sanford said. “I’m really excited to see Iggy [Iyiegbuniwe] play. His off-season has been absolutely dominant. Masai Whyte is another guy that has bought in to everything we’ve commanded from a physical and mental standpoint. Ben Holt has a look in his eyes of a guy that can’t wait to get back on the field and knock some pads around. I feel really good about that group.”

“I’m very excited about where our team is at right now,” Sanford finalized. “I’m just excited for football. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this roster at WKU and what we inherited, is that these players just love when the football is out there. Anything that has to do with playing the game of football and competing is when you see the lights go on. It’s unlike any team I’ve been a part of.”

The Hilltoppers will continue with their spring training up until the Red-White game on Saturday April 22. The game will kick off at 3 p.m. at Houchens-Smith Stadium. WKU will kick off the regular season on Saturday,  Sept.  2 against Eastern Kentucky.

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