Young WKU secondary progressing thanks to playing time

Brad Stephens

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for WKU, no group has gone through more changes than the secondary.

The Toppers’ week one lineup featured Derrius Brooks and Jamal Forrest starting at cornerback, with Mark Santoro and Ryan Beard starting at strong safety and free safety.

Just five games into the season, things have drastically changed.

True freshmen Arius Wright and Tyree Robinson have now cemented themselves as WKU’s starting corners.

Meanwhile, at free safety sophomore Kareem Peterson has been splitting time with Beard.

And a lingering neck injury has caused Santoro’s spot to be given temporarily to redshirt sophomore Kiante Young.

Head coach Willie Taggart, who put an emphasis on the secondary in his first recruiting class, said the Toppers’ young guns earned their spots by being “physical and competitive.”

“They’ve only been in there a couple of games, and they’re getting better every game,” Taggart said Monday.

Wright and Robinson began to see the field during the second half of WKU’s Sept. 18 game against Indiana. In the season’s first five halves of the season, WKU surrendered 133 points. In the five halves since, the Toppers have given up 73.

Of course, they have yet to produce a winning performance. But Peterson said the underclassmen have been playing at a level that’s beyond players of their age.

“Obviously their play speaks for itself,” Peterson said. “They’ve stepped up and given the team a lot of production.”

The Florida International game seemed to be a coming-out party for the secondary.

Robinson recorded his first career interception, and Young paced the defense with 13 tackles, helping to fill the void left by the absence of Santoro, who was WKU’s second-leading tackler a year ago.

Peterson said Santoro have continued to be a “mentor” to the WKU secondary while injured.

“Mark knows the offense like the back of his hand and he knows the plays so that helps,” Peterson said. “He’s in the meeting rooms with us after rehab, and he’s teaching us how to do things right.”

Taggart has been quiet on the length or severity of Santoro’s injury, meaning Young will be WKU’s strong safety for the time being.

But Taggart has expressed that he’d like to see the free safety spot that’s been shared to this point by Peterson and Beard to gain a degree of consistency.

“That’s where we need to be with our football team,” Taggart said. “We need to be consistent.”

The secondary’s need for consistency will be showcased Saturday night against Louisiana-Monroe.

ULM comes into the game averaging just over 14 points per game, the lowest total in the Sun Belt Conference.

Peterson said he expects the young group to not overlook the Warhawks, but to instead continue its steady improvement.

“The way to win is just do what our coaches teach us,” he said. “They’ve been studying more film than we have so just play technique, play perfect, and we’ll get a win.”