Helton announces promotions, expects Kittley back for bowl game

WKU+head+coach+Tyson+Helton+on+the+sidelines+during+the+game+against+the+Arkansas+Razorbacks+at+Donald+W.+Reynolds+Razorback+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+Nov.+9%2C+2019.+WKU+defeated+Arkansas+45-19.

Fahad Alotaibi

WKU head coach Tyson Helton on the sidelines during the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. WKU defeated Arkansas 45-19.

Wyatt Sparkman, Sports Reporter

WKU is set to play Appalachian State on Dec. 18 in the Boca Raton Bowl, but major staff changes have been the main story for the Hilltoppers early this bowl season. 

WKU offensive coordinator Zach Kittley is returning to Lubbock, Texas, to become the next offensive coordinator for the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Kittley was an offensive interim for the Red Raiders in 2013 and 2014 before moving up to become the assistant quarterbacks coach from 2015-2017.  

“I’m really, really happy for him,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “He has done a tremendous job as well and his body of work speaks for itself.”

Helton said Kittley is in Texas at the moment, but expects him to be back next week to coach against Appalachian State. 

“That is very fluid, but that is the anticipation to have him be able to coach in the bowl game, which we’re really excited about,” Helton said. “Obviously, his relationship with Bailey [Zappe], and the opportunity for him and Bailey to have one more game together. I think that’s really, really special.”

WKU has two more offensive staff members leaving the Hill. Offensive line coach Stephen Hamby is joining Kittley at Texas Tech. Hamby played for the Red Raiders from 2005-2008. 

“He has done a great job and [coached] probably the best o-line in the country as far as pass protection,” Helton said. “He’s getting to go back home and I know that’s a dream come true for him. We’re just really, really ecstatic for all those men.”

Co-offensive coordinator and inside receivers coach Bryan Ellis is leaving to become the offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern, joining Tyson Helton’s brother Clay Helton. Ellis was WKU’s offensive coordinator from 2019-2020. Ellis was the quarterbacks coach for Clay Helton at USC in 2018. 

“That’s a seamless transition for him,” Helton said. “Brian did a great job at USC with Clay. I think that’s a great fit there, and they’ve worked extremely well together. He’s going to do a great job down there.” 

Hamby and Ellis will not coach in against Appalachian State. 

Promotions 

With the changes in staff, Helton decided to look in-house to replace Kittley, Hamby and Ellis. Ben Arbuckle, an offensive quality control coach, was promoted to quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. Helton is still unsure if he’ll still be the quarterbacks coach long-term. 

“Ben has been in that room all year with Zach,” Helton said. “…I don’t think we blink an eye there. I think he is a future star.” 

Zach Lankford, the tight ends quality control coach, was promoted to offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator. Wide receiver coach Josh Crawford will remain in his role but will serve as another co-offensive coordinator for the Hilltoppers.   

“The reason why I’m having multiple co-offensive coordinators is because all those men are talented. All those men need to have a voice in the room. It worked very well for us this past year with Zach Kittley, Bryan Ellis, Zach Lankford, Ben Arbuckle, coach Crawford and coach [Carlos] Locklyn in that room. All those guys had a voice. I think moving forward, it’s another seamless transition there.” 

There were a few more staff changes Helton announced. Running backs coach Carlos Lockyn will be the run game coordinator and Scott Vestal, a defensive interim, was promoted to inside linebackers coach. However, Helton said he still has one offensive position left opened. 

“I will take my time in that position to see what the best fit is,” Helton said. “Whether that is an inside receivers position, or whether that might be another possible offensive coordinator, we’ll see there. I do think I have time to make some decisions in that area.” 

Helton said that if he doesn’t get a “true offensive coordinator” for the 2022 season, then Arbuckle will call plays.   

“How I set up my staff, I always want to have the next man up mentality,” Helton said. “I always try to hire talented people throughout the whole staff, just not the full time coaches, because I think that is a seamless transition… I don’t even get to blink an eye and I know I have guys that are just talented.”  

WKU will play the Appalachian State Mountaineers on Dec. 18 at 10 a.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.