Hilltoppers still adjusting to new system in spring practice

Junior quarterback Mike White (14) hands the ball off during Western’s first football practice of the spring on Thursday, March 23, 2017. Players participated in both team and individual drills in their first practice leading up to the Fall 2017 season.

Sam Porter

During their first spring practice of 2017, senior quarterback Mike White nailed redshirt sophomore wide receiver Lucky Jackson for a deep touchdown. The fight song played over the stadium after the touchdown, a new tradition Head Coach Mike Sanford said would happen after every offensive touchdown during spring practice.

Sanford was the first to greet Jackson in the end zone, outpacing sophomore running back Quinton Baker and several other offensive players to celebrate the big play. The touchdown was just one of several big plays Sanford and his staff saw during their opening practice.

“It was a great day,” Sanford said. “It was great to be back on the grass in an unbelievable environment to do it in with great weather. This was the very first time they’ve gone through our practices with that style and tempo. I don’t know what the practices were like before, but they were certainly pretty good because these guys came out, bought in and flew around.”

Last spring, White beat out fellow quarterbacks Drew Eckels and Tyler Ferguson for the starting job after Nelson Fishback went down with a season ending injury. White proved he was the worthy candidate in 2016, throwing for 4,363 yards and 37 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions in his redshirt junior campaign.

His passing efficiency of 181.3 ranked third in the nation and set a single season school record. After proving himself as the right guy, White will look to take on more of a leader role as the offense adjusts to learning a new system.

“That’s the role I want to take on. I want to be a leader,” White said. “I want to be able to help the guys around me. I definitely have to take care of my business first. It doesn’t look good when the starting quarterback doesn’t take care of his stuff. I’ve been in the meeting room with Coach Sanford and Coach [Junior] Adams trying to learn this offense as much as possible so I can go out there and speak their language to our guys.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Sanford put an emphasis on turnovers on day one. Every practice, Sanford said three is the “quota” for the defense in terms of turnovers. The defense hit their quota on day one, taking away the football four times from White and the offense.

Senior defensive backs Joe Brown and Leverick Johnson anchor the WKU secondary returning in 2017. Brown led WKU with 10 pass breakups and was named All-Conference USA second team last season. Johnson served as the Hilltopper’s primary nickleback and will look to improve in 2017 after recording two interceptions, including one pick six, in his junior campaign. Every time the defense forces a turnover, the horns go off.

“Day one was great. There was a lot of energy from the defense,” redshirt junior linebacker Joel Iwiegbuniwe said. “I think we had four or five turnovers so that was big for us. Coach wanted us to come out and have some energy. Other than the new plays, there’s not too much difference. We still have the energy, play fast and move to the ball.”

Sanford and company will continue to practice every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 4:15-6:15 p.m. through April 21. The Hilltoppers will continue on this schedule leading up to the annual Red vs. White Spring Game on April 22. All practices are open to the public.

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