With the 2019 college football season a little over a month away, WKU is gearing up to kick off another year.
The 2019 WKU football media guide was released last week, and the roster of Hilltoppers first-year head coach Tyson Helton will lead into battle appears to be set — barring any last-minute additions or departures.
The Hilltoppers enter 2019 looking to bounce back after a three win clunker in 2018. As a result of the poor performance, the offseason brought a lot of change to the WKU football program.
The most notable change occurred on the sidelines. After just two seasons on the Hill, athletic director Todd Stewart elected to move on from former head coach Mike Sanford and hired Helton to man the position.
Helton previously worked with former WKU head coach Jeff Brohm in 2014 and 2015 as offensive coordinator. Helton returns to the Hill after spending two seasons at Southern California and last year at Tennessee. Helton is just the 21st head coach in WKU football history.
The new head coach has his work cut out for him heading into the season, but returns a solid core from 2018. The Hilltoppers return 81.2% of rushing yards, 74% of passing yards, 76.7 of total offense, 60.2 of tackles, 75% of interceptions, and 69.6% of sacks from last season. Lack of experience or playing time should not be a problem for WKU.
Breaking down the roster, there are 47 returning letterwinners for the Hilltoppers — 25 on offense, 21 on defense and one on special teams. The junior class is by far the biggest, with 35 juniors set to suit up this fall. The Hilltoppers have just 14 seniors, which is less than sophomores (18), redshirt freshmen (18) and true freshmen (21).
A few of the Hilltoppers' returning letterwinners received preseason honors ahead of the 2019 campaign.
Redshirt senior offensive tackle Miles Pate was voted to the the 2019 All-Conference USA Preseason Team and also the 2019 Outland Trophy Award Watch List. All 14 C-USA head coaches accounted for the all-conference vote. Pate was among the best right tackles in C-USA last year — garnering a +21.8 overall rating according to Pro Football Focus College’s Signature Stats, which included +9.5 for pass blocking and +8.9 for run blocking.
Redshirt junior tight end Kyle Fourtenbary was named to the 2019 John Mackey Award Preseason Watch List. The Mackey Award is given to the top tight end in college football each year. The Alabama native is one of only five C-USA players listed. He enters the 2019 season with 44 receptions for 398 yards and two touchdowns for his career.
Redshirt junior center Seth Joest was named to the 2019 Rimington Watch List. Joest started all 12 games and played all 898 offensive snaps last season for the Hilltoppers, posting a +16.9 cumulative blocking rating, according to PFF College’s Signature Stats.
Redshirt junior offensive lineman Tyler Witt was named to the 2019 Wuerffel Trophy Watch List. According to a release, the trophy is "awarded to the FBS player who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement." Witt started all 12 games and played all 898 offensive snaps at his left guard position last season.
While these honored Hilltoppers have massive responsibilities heading into the season, Helton will also need contributions from the rest of the squad.
Offensively, the Hilltoppers will look for improvement after an abysmal 2018. The decision Helton makes at quarterback will have a major impact on the offense. Steven Duncan, Davis Shanley, Kevaris Thomas and Ty Storey all figure to be in competition in fall camp.
Duncan appeared in nine games last year, throwing for 1,071 yards and nine touchdowns. Shanley also appeared in nine games last year, throwing for 942 yards and three touchdowns. Shanley was also a threat running the ball, scoring a touchdown on 91 yards.
Thomas came to WKU as one of the highest-ranked recruits in the school’s history, but looks to translate the potential to production after redshirting last season. Storey graduated and transferred from Arkansas in the spring and brings SEC experience to the Hill after starting nine games last season for the Razorbacks.
The Hilltoppers have six running backs listed on their 2019 roster, but two stand out as likely to have an immediate impact. Redshirt sophomore Josh Samuel led WKU in rushing last season with 641 yards and averaging 5.3 yards a carry. Sophomore Gino Appleberry had 196 yards rushing on 3.5 yards per carry. After leading the WKU rushing attack in 2018, these two figure to get the first crack at handling the backfield this year.
The receiving corps is a group to watch heading into fall camp. With Mik’Quan Deane graduated, Fourtenbary will hold down the tight end position and provide a security blanket for whichever quarterback wins the starting job. Redshirt senior Lucky Jackson will operate as the top receiver after posting a 552-yard, four-touchdown season a year ago.
Behind Jackson, fall camp will determine who gets reps at receiver.
Redshirt junior Xavier Lane has impressed in back-to-back spring games, but only caught seven passes for 55 yards in 2018. Sophomore Garland LaFrance figures to get reps in the slot after appearing in all 12 games at running back in his freshman season. Redshirt senior Quin Jernighan was third on the team in receiving with 437 yards in 2018.
Freshman receiver Manny Allen is the star of Helton’s 2019 recruiting class and could see the field early after an impressive showing in the spring game. The three-star recruit entered the transfer portal back in June, but has seemingly elected to stay on the Hill.
Allen was still listed on the 2019 WKU roster as of July 18, which is when the media guide was distributed. WKU didn't immediately respond to a request for confirmation on Allen's current status with the team, but Allen posted a tweet Tuesday that seems to indicate the roster is correct and he's still with the Hilltoppers.
The offensive line seems to be the most intact position group heading into the fall. Joest and Pate lead the way for WKU and could end up All C-USA performers by the end of 2019. Eight of the 12 returning lineman appeared in games last season, so Helton’s group up front has plenty of reps and experience.
Turning the attention to the defense, the line on this side of the ball is also a strength heading into the fall. WKU returns its best linemen from a season ago, including redshirt junior Jeremy Darvin, junior DeAngelo Malone and redshirt sophomore Juwuan Jones. Malone and Jones combined for 11 sacks a season ago.
WKU was also slated to add former junior college all-american Celestin Haba to boost its depth and pass rushing ability along the defensive line, but the heralded recruit is not currently listed on the 2019 roster.
Darvin believes the line can be the best in all of C-USA.
“Last year we made a good stride in the direction we want to go as being the best defensive line in Conference USA,” Darvin said after the 11th spring practice. “But I think this is our year inside and outside. We got the guys, we got the talent. Everybody’s got the size and speed. They know the defense. I think this is our year to show we are the best defensive line.”
The linebacker corps took quite a hit with the graduation of Masai Whyte and the transfer of Ben Holt to Purdue. Key returnees Kyle Bailey and Eli Brown will likely have to pick up the production the starters left behind.
Bailey will make the move from safety to linebacker, while Brown will look to recover from a foot injury sustained in spring practice and top the only 25 tackles he collected in limited action in 2018.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” defensive coordinator Clayton White said after the team’s eighth spring practice. “Those guys played a lot of snaps for us for two seasons. I really think the best thing about it is that those guys taught our guys a lot when they was here before they left, so I hope our guys have a chance to really take that and move on and make the best of their career.”
WKU also added two key transfers this June in Malik Staples and Jaden Hunter — a pair of linebackers from Louisville and Georgia, respectively — that could end up helping to ease the loss of two starters.
The secondary also returns key pieces for 2019, with redshirt junior Devon Key and redshirt senior Ta’Corian Darden being the most notable. Both defensive backs tied for the team lead in interceptions with three apiece. WKU returns six other letterwinners in the secondary after Key and Darden, but none provided much production in 2018. White will use the fall to sort out his secondary rotation.
Like most schools, the Hilltoppers did endure unexpected losses that could impact the depth of the roster in 2019. Tight end Kris Leach, defensive lineman Heath Wiggins and long snapper Ben Reeder were key names in a wave of post-spring transfers that could leave WKU thin in some areas.
Reeder was the starting long snapper the past two seasons prior to leaving the Hill. Wiggins started 11 games in three seasons for the Hilltoppers, while Leach transferred from WKU to Kent State this offseason.
Senior kicker and punter Alex Rinella returns and figures to handle a majority of the special teams duties in 2019, ranging from kickoffs to punts, but freshmen Carson Flake and Mitchell Harralson will battle for the starting long snapper position in the fall after Reeder's unexpected departure.
The Hilltoppers will begin the Helton era Aug. 29 in the season opener against Central Arkansas at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and email@example.com. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.