WKU Football: Long Overdue Thoughts on the Spring Game/2022 Team
Analyzing Spring Game Thoughts and Breaking Down Where WKU Stands Heading into the Summer of 2022
I know the WKU Spring Game was weeks ago. I apologize to anybody who was expecting an immediate analysis on the Spring Game. For what it’s worth, I have a day job and it’s been crazy.
That being said, it’s better late than never, and frankly I think it’s great to know about everything post-NFL Draft in order to really know where everything stands after a full spring.
NFL Draft/Free Agency
Western Kentucky Football had its best season in five years, nearly topping its 2016 campaign in terms of nearly winning a conference championship and having the most explosive passing attack in the history of college football. Western did fall short of the Conference USA trophy, but certainly caught a ton of attention with Bailey Zappe setting the NCAA record for passing yards and touchdowns in a single season and Jerreth Sterns nearly doing the same thing in terms of receptions (hhird all-time) and also finished up there in total yards (fifth all-time) in a single season. With one more game, he easily could have gotten both.
Consequently, for the first time in years, Western has a real chance at adding a significant amount of NFL-level pros to the murals inside the Houch. DeAngelo Malone (#82 Falcons) and Bailey Zappe (#137 Patriots) mark the highest combination of draft picks since 2017, when Forrest Lamp and Taywan Taylor were selected in the second and third round, respectively. Zappe and Malone were selected in the third and fourth. Overall, Malone was the fourth highest Hilltopper selection of all-time. Zappe was a solid ninth highest overall.
Both have landed in what seem to be good fits for them. Perhaps Zappe is an odd pick for New England, but from Zappe’s perspective, a man with a lot of confidence, going to New England and learning from arguably the greatest coach of all-time in Bill Belichick who molded an off-the-radar QB into the GOAT has to be a thrill. For Malone, he gets to rep his local team. An Atlanta product, Malone gets to play for the Falcons, an incredible stroke of luck!
But it’s about more than just those two standouts. Other players with absolutely realistic chances to make a squad would be Jerreth Sterns (Buccaneers) and Antwon Kincade (Chiefs). Still, others like offensive lineman Boe Wilson, who also got an invite to the Cardinals minicamp, may get their foot in the door. Justin Meredith surprised us all last year and is still in the league.
Here’s to several more Topper pros, including guys like John Haggerty and Lucky Jackson who ended up in the CFL. Coco Darden continues to have success in the arena league.
Without question, losing historical offensive passing production is a kick in the gut for this program. There’s no way someone comes in and produces another NCAA record. Surely not. It’s incredibly unlikely a receiver flirts with all-time records, either. If they do, that’s a miraculous bonus. But the Tops also lose some significant firepower in the running game with starting RB Noah Whittington heading west to Oregon. There’s also no way you completely replace your do-it-all defensive end who could literally play all six front positions on the defense and find success.
But despite losing some more people to the transfer portal (NIL you SUCK!), overall, this roster is not in disastrous shape. Let’s take it position-by-position, add in some spring game thoughts, and give you some perspective on the Tops under a microscope.
Quarterback: Probably Going to be Fine
First of all, the prospects are there. Jarret Doege, a transfer from West Virginia, produced with the Mountaineers in multiple seasons before transferring to The Hill. Nothing flashy, but he won’t be intimidated. Also, wasn’t some dude named Mike White unimpressive statistically? A non-FBS stud grad transfer (sound familiar?) provides competent competition for Doege in Austin Reed. Others at the position include the huge 6’6” Caden Veltcamp (son of the strength coach), Darius Ocean (dual threat athlete), and Chance McDonald (impressive pocket passer).
Side note: South Warren’s Caden Veltcamp is the real deal. He looks and feels like a future star. That kid has some presence about him, and he towers over everyone else on the field. He could be a real leader in the future. And NO! He will not start. But he’s got a bright future and I hope he sticks around and develops with the Tops.
All of them have the ability to scramble (unlike most WKU QBs since Brandon Doughty) and all of them can make some throws. I think if people were asking what the QBs might look like, I’d say, “Think Ty Storey”. If WKU can get something similar to Ty Storey in any form, that’s a great response post-Bailey Zappe.
My gut on these guys says they’re probably going to be fine. There’s enough caliber there to think whoever comes out of the fray with the job going to have to have beaten out at least one if not two other good quarterbacks to earn the spot. I believe Ocean and Veltcamp will fight for the right to travel with the team as the third QB, but I believe it’s a two horse race ultimately between Doege and Reed, with Doege being the slight to decent favorite.
Running Back: Surprisingly Adequate
At one point, the ranks seemed thin. But Kye Robichaux has earned a scholarship and Jakairi Moses, a one time submission to the transfer portal, has decided to stay for his 14th season with WKU (fact check me, bro). Also IU transfer Davion Ervin-Poindexter figures to probably start. In addition, incoming freshman L.T. Sanders highlights a young stable of running backs that provide a surprising amount of depth for a position ravaged by the portal.
One would think the Power Five transfer Ervin-Poindexter stands to reason as in the pole position for the starting job, but Kye Robichaux is a unique athlete with a big body that can catch out of the backfield with tons of upside. And many Western fans remember a Jakairi Moses run or two when he’s been healthy enough to break loose a big run. My guess would be those three would be your top three (probably with Moses third) and maybe one more emerges from the pack as the fourth option at running back that may occasionally get some snaps situationally.
WR: Loaded as Usual
Despite losing Jerreth Sterns, there are some really good players in this group, and some others have serious potential. Daewood Davis is back, as well as Malachi Corley, Craig Burt, and Dalvin Smith, among others. Dalvin Smith was the Offensive MVP of the Spring, while Craig Burt was the most pleasant surprise to be back on The Hill. He announced his name in the transfer portal fairly early on and backed out that decision. He should contribute at a much higher level this season with a lot of experience and production leaving The Hill.
Starters probably stand to be Davis, Corley, and Smith, but a good six wide receivers could be on the cusp of making some noise this season, including guys not mentioned like Josh Sterns (who did have a dropped ball in the Spring Game, unfortunately) and Western Michigan transfer Jaylen Hall. Fortunately for WKU, losing tons of production may not be as big of a disaster as one might think.
TE: Should Be Better? Can’t Be Much Worse
Tight end was a position that basically didn’t exist in the passing game last season. When preseason Mackey Watchlist member Joshua Simon went down in the first game with a knee injury, Western struggled to get almost anything from the position, although Joey Beljan did score five touchdowns. However, several of those were gimmes on a tight end screen on the goal line. Yes, he technically scored them, but his 129 yards in 14 games indicates his actual production. He was very rarely able to run a route downfield for any kind of threat. And frankly, that’s not fair to him, a guy who was supposed to be a stone cold backup. But to his credit, he had a reputation of being a really good blocking tight end.
Fourth year sophomore Joshua Simon was still in street clothes for the spring game, and it looked like he was still wearing a knee brace. Honestly, it doesn’t mean anything when you’re five months out from playing a game, but it’s not a great sign that he’s still wearing a brace over half a year into his injury. He may take the path of a Brandon Doughty, who took a little longer to heal from his ACL tear.
The tight ends did look ok in the Spring Game, with several making nice looking catches in traffic. Regardless, the tight end position couldn’t be much worse than it was in 2021. If the Tops could just get 500 yards and some decent blocking, I’m sure they would be absolutely thrilled. If Simon is healthy or if this group could really pull itself together, I think this could be a sneaky big deal to just have a tight end room that makes an impact on the field.
Offensive Line: The Biggest Mystery on the Team
With the Spring Game being basically a “thud” practice in front of fans, it was difficult to tell much from either of the lines. Of course, in the trenches, they pretty much play a full game if they’re wearing any kind of pads. However, it still takes away the intensity of an all-out tackle football game.
But this unit is going to be a mystery regardless until we see what they look like against other football teams. And that’s partially because the defensive line is going to be a heck of a mystery, too. When you’re comparing two units that you know nothing about, how do you gauge whether either of them is good? In general, there were some good things from the offensive line, but they also had some moments where the pocket collapsed and the quarterback had the chance of a snowball in the devil’s palace.
Let’s look at what we know: WKU got four commits from offensive linemen this year. One was from Vinnie Murphy, a South Carolina transfer who should probably take a starting job, although he’s still pretty young. The other three are freshmen and will likely sit for at least a year unless they’re an extraordinary athlete or the Tops are extremely shorthanded. Very rarely does a true freshman burn a redshirt as an offensive lineman.
But starting center Rusty Staats (and his family) and tackle Gunner Britton are ultra committed to the Tops. Seemingly two spots are up for grabs on the offensive line. Quantavious Leslie and David Ndukwe seem to fit the part of someone who could take the next step and start for the Tops. However, they are much less proven commodities than the three highlighted. I did notice Evan Wibberley a couple of times and frankly didn’t recognize him as one of the usual suspects at the time of the game. But he seemed to be someone that may have some potential in the future.
I think this unit is at minimum ok? But they were so good last year that it may feel like a step back just simply because they were truly an all-time great offensive line in the history of college football.
Defensive Line: Another Mystery, but Less of One
There were tons of producers last year on the defensive line. They may not have been as explosive in terms of production on an individual basis, but individually, there were several guys that stood out as future stars. Several defensive tackles seemed to be nice prospects, and Brodric Martin was actually Defensive MVP of the spring.
Perhaps the biggest news, though is the aforementioned legend that left in DeAngelo Malone, and the unmentioned as of yet man who decided to stay in defensive end Juwuan Jones. Juwuan Jones was rumored to have possibly been interested in a transfer, and he also probably could have considered trying to go pro somewhere. He’s been a good enough producer that he could probably catch someone’s attention.
However, I think he made the right decision and stands to have a monster year if he’s healthy enough and fresh enough to make some plays without DeAngelo Malone probably stealing several plays from Jones, who is more of a bull rushing, physical defensive end. Malone was more explosive, so he usually got there first. However, Jones is no slouch. Although his numbers have gone down since his first two years on The Hill, he still should finish with at least 25 career sacks and 40 or so tackles for loss.
Here’s the problem, though. The next defensive end in terms of production is Marcus Bragg with seven career tackles. So there’s perhaps your biggest question mark on defense: Who replaces Malone? Or at least, who proves worthy of being a starting defensive end? I’ll tell you what I would consider if the defensive ends don’t separate themselves: Put in a productive, perhaps slightly smaller tackle at end and challenge him to be productive as an end. Or run some 3-3-5 with one D-End.
The problem with the lack of any kind of proven edge rusher now is that you really have no one that can definitely produce tons of sacks and blow up the edge. Jones is more of a solid all-around guy. Hopefully someone like Will Ignont or Malik Staples can emerge as an assistant to the defensive end role. Maybe with such depth at LB, Defensive Coordinator Maurice Crum should look at sliding a bigger linebacker into a DE position.
Linebacker: Power Five Talent, Group of Five Rotation Level Resume
There are some nice pieces in this linebacker room. Nebraska, Tennessee, solid JUCO, UNC, Georgia, FAU. Those are all very respectable transfers. But again, DeAngelo freakin’ Malone did a lot of their jobs last season and the season before. He’s gone now. WKU needs some productive linebackers. Western had some pass rushers. Will Ignont was awesome at times. Nick Days looked like a bright star but got injured. Malik Staples. Others.
Man, I’m really impressed with the paper on these guys, but the Tops really struggled early last season when, for whatever reason, the linebackers couldn’t produce. Linebacker is a position you need to produce. They’re in charge of the backbone of the defense: The middle. They plug the holes the defensive line leaves, meaning if linebackers aren’t making plays, you better have a safety that goes everywhere or it’s a busted play. Oh by the way, Antwon Kincade did that, and he’s gone, too. So this linebacking group really needs to pull it together. They have all of the makings of a great group, but nobody has the credentials to definitively say, “I’m the next great WKU linebacker.” Let’s see who comes out of that incredibly talented pack.
Defensive Back: The Other Big Question on Defense
Western has been wracked with graduation and transfer from this group. A perfect example, for some reason, Roger Cray transferred to conference rival Old Dominion. Maybe he felt zero competition since ODU canceled 2020’s season. Maybe he missed Mike Sanford, who recruited him and valued his skillset more. Long story short, he’s now been invited to an NFL minicamp. But the biggest 1-2 blow has to be Devon Key from 2020, who graduated and is now trying make the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster, and then Antwon Kincade graduating in 2021, who, ironically enough, will compete with Key for a spot on the same Chiefs team! Go figure.
But Kincade was great from the start of his WKU career. With 326 career tackles and solid statistics in everything but amazingly never recording a sack in his career, Kincade got better every season, recording more tackles every year of his five year career on The Hill.
But how do the Tops replace him?
Well, Western actually does have some horses, both on the island at cornerback as well in the defensive backfield at safety. A.J. Brathwaite is the man who played second and third fiddle at times to the Topper safeties in recent memory. But now, after a campaign with over 60 tackles, he should be ready to make a huge leap. He certainly produced explosiveness at a young age, scoring a touchdown in 2020 on Special Teams. But this past season, he made a massive leap.
Other DBs have an impressive resume, or at least pedigree. Rome Weber is a transfer from Wyoming. Former four star Tre Shaw, a complete mystery who chose to sit out from COVID concerns, has transferred in from UNC. Dominique Bradshaw and Kahlef Hailassee bring returning names fans should know, the latter of which originally played for Oregon and provides a likely starter level player at corner. Davion Williams and Kaleb Oliver also round a very impressive list of transfer players, both of which played at Power Five schools and ranked as four star prospects out of high school. Oliver came in immediately last season in a supporting role and recorded 32 tackles.
So the DB room, much like the LB room, has some nice looking pieces. But the fact remains that the Tops got freaking torched at times on the back end last season. They did shore it up for the most part later in the season, but early on, it was a struggle.
Special Teams: At Least We’re Deep at Kicker
I kid. Sort of.
Obviously losing John Haggerty is a massive blow to the Tops. Haggerty was a historically great punter at WKU, improving every single year and honestly dominating the punt game whenever he had a chance. I firmly believe if he had more of a sample size (and consequently in-game experience at the college level), he would have made an NFL camp. But he has landed in the CFL and should absolutely launch the ball all over the field in a league that absolutely plays to his strengths. Not only was Haggerty a good punter, but he was a well-respected leader and a mature man amongst boys in the Topper locker room.
But Haggerty is really the only loss from last season of ground shaking significance on Special Teams. Cory Munson is a proven kickoff specialist, as well as playing his first year on The Hill as the starting kicker. He lost his job as kicker to Brayden Narveson, who has been incredible the past two years. So those guys will battle it out again in that department and whoever wins is going to be good. Thank God for that.
Another really good (and completely overlooked factor by most) is the fact that former five star long snapper Jake Bowman is back for his second year on The Hill and presumably should only get better. Long snapper is a massively important position to everybody if they suck. Fortunately, Jake doesn’t suck and we never notice him. But he’s an incredible college snapper and makes everyone better in the kicking game.
With Daewood Davis earning Special Teams MVP of the spring, returner seems to be something the Tops should be in good shape with. Jerreth Sterns was pretty average in this area, so adequacy or better would be just fine in this role.
Punter is the obvious question mark on special teams, but Tom Ellard is another Australian punter (like Haggerty) who presumably should be able to come in and start and be decent. Meanwhile, youngster Wes Pahl seems to be his backup. In the spring game, Ellard had a couple of boomers, both in warmups and in the game. However, he wasn’t consistent, and he’s not as physically long as Haggerty. John had incredible power, but he was also 6’5”. Ellard is 5’10”, so that gives him a little less margin to have the physical ability to average 46 yards per punt, which Haggerty did in his sleep.
But Tom is an absolute class act. My kids and I were down on the front row and he came and gave my girls his fruit snack. Who does that? He’s got a high level of character if nothing else.
How Does the Program Feel?
First of all, as a former Topper Football Alum (yes, a manager), man it definitely feels different from some years in the past. Coach Helton has done an incredible job trying to encourage alumni to come back. He is organizing and authorizing and doing whatever needs to be done to get people involved. Of course you have to like that.
Not to get too religious, but there’s a coaches only bible study once a week and all of them go. Many of the players are involved in FCA and other campus ministries. Unheard of!!! And even if that means nothing to you, what it means is they’re trying to be good people and they’re trying to really invest in these kids. They could be completely consumed with their jobs, but they’re pouring into these kids and they’re making it a family atmosphere. Try dealing with some of the coaches of the past who made it completely miserable to simply walk into the stadium and say, “Hey” and ask a question of one of the staff. I got fired for that “stunt” I pulled in 2013, aka asking if it was true we weren’t having practice that day. How dare I!!! #HandyCandyAndy
The WKU Football Alumni Council is something they have formed over the past few years that is bringing former players and support staff together to help make the future of the Tops better. A group of us met up before the barbecue brunch right before the game and talked about the direction of things, etc. Then we all got to pick a table and the players and staff came in and ate with us. Again, unheard of.
I’d really like to encourage the former WKU Alumni reading this:
They’re really trying to make things better and they’re giving former players and staff the time of day to really try to make an impact. They’re really trying to address NIL concerns (which we have all seen affect major college sports this year), and they’re really trying to bring back and bolster traditions that have often gone by the wayside.
But Topper fans and alumni, be encouraged about the character of the current coaches, players, and staff. They’re good people and it’s a family atmosphere like you would want it to be. That hasn’t always been the case.
Overall Feel of the Program: Good With Budding Greatness
It sure makes it easy to replace talent with a grasp of the transfer portal and a marketable playing style. All kinds of offensive players (and defensive players) are willing to come to WKU because of winning and a really stable depth chart with some opportunities for transfers to still come in and play significant roles.
WKU made it to the Conference USA Championship in 2021. You can’t get much better than that! But they barely got there and they did it with some obvious issues: Lack of a great running game, non-explosive front seven, linebackers that disappeared, and a secondary that could give up huge chunk plays, especially to big receivers, for example.
With three teams scampering off to the Suck Belt, the odds increase that WKU should make the conference championship game once again. With a pretty solid roster, Western should have factored in anyway. And frankly, Marshall is the only team leaving this season that really impacts WKU in any way. But that’s a pretty significant obstacle that likely could have given Western a hard time in 2022.
Now the path is more clear, although FAU and Middle, along with a host of teams in the West, may have something to say to the Tops. However, WKU should once again be very good. How good?
There are several obvious progressions and regressions that will happen. The only question is, “By how much?”
Whoever he is, the quarterback is not going to threaten the 6,000 yard mark. Whoever they are, the offensive line is probably going to give up more than a sack a game. They could be historically great and go backwards, simply because of the greatness of last year’s trench men. Whoever they are, the tight end position is likely going to pick up more than 200 yards the entire season. The defense just lost a safety that recorded 100 tackles and a defensive end that recorded an incredible 94 tackles while still producing sacks and blowing up the backfield. It’s doubtful more than one person will even threaten 100 tackles on the season. Juwuan Jones will hopefully not have another down year. The Tops will probably not be second in the country in team interceptions. And amazingly, to follow that up, only two players had three interceptions or more from that defense. The chances of that repeating? Not good. After watching him for five seconds, the punter is almost definitely not punting for 46 yards per punt.
Football is almost never about a star player carrying a team. Some combination of that random list of factors is going to make or break the season. Look at Bailey Zappe. WKU didn’t start winning until the defense got better. DeAngelo Malone was the best player on the field in almost every game, but he alone couldn’t make the defense be anything more than hanging on for dear life.
Each of these progressions will impact the trajectory of the 2022 Tops. Think of the difference between Piggy T and Bailey Zappe. Think of the difference between Josh Simon’s production and Joey Beljan. Think of how bad WKU was before the linebackers started producing last year. Think about Mike Sanford’s rushing attack. It’s going to be about which of those areas (and how many of them) WKU is deficient in, if any. And how deficient are they? Slightly? Last in the nation? Historically awful? If they’re not deficient anywhere, then it’s going to be about the weakest link in the chain moreso than the most flashy statistical celebrity.
Regardless, shouldn’t Topper fans and alumni feel incredible after last season? In what felt like could be a slightly above average season, WKU pulled it together and nearly won a championship. And WKU has answered all of the major transfer concerns with a nice recruit or a nice transfer in of their own. Not one position sits without options.
Now that classes are ending, the spotlight turns off and summer workouts begin. Other guys start to show up periodically, and come July, there will be rumblings of how good some of the new guys are. Some of the freshmen will start establishing themselves as potential contributors. And we’ll start to get a feel for the Tops for 2022. Once camp starts, news will fly hot and heavy.
With the basketball team making borderline national news with some of their high profile offseason successes, the WKU Softball team clinching an East Division crown, and a WKU Volleyball program that is turning into a national power, the opportunity for an exciting 2022-23 is just around the corner.