WKU Football: Reading the Topper Tea Leaves
What does all of the coach speak coming out of WKU football camp mean?
We all hear the mantras and the phrases every coach in America hears and it gets old, and a lot of times, whatever they say sounds the same.
At my time at WKU, you had David Elson, “Do YOUR job!” and “ATD=7 Pts”.
Willie Taggart, “Who has it better than us? NOOOOOBOODDDYYYY!!!” and “Chasing Greatness”.
Bobby Petrino, “Ring the Bell” and then weird locker room war music.
Jeff Brohm, “Let’s Play Football” and gosh, his press conferences were always absolute coach speak.
Coach Helton’s is “#WIT (Whatever It Takes)”. He also says almost the exact same thing for about three sentences and changes the names of the teams or the names of the time of year, and then says, “With that being said questions.” Everybody has their patterns, don’t they? And they’re all Type A guys thinking their opponents are watching for any kind of slip up about a flaw. So let’s look beyond the smokescreen and get into what they really mean.
Well, WKU football is nearly two weeks into camp, and we’re finally getting some information as far as what this team might actually look like.
So as we start collecting data, hearing reports, and seeing interviews, despite the encryption from coaches and players, if you’re paying attention, there’s still information to be gleaned. Sometimes, you may not pick up on it unless you understand the context, or if you’ve been on the inside when you watched the interviews and watched outsiders try to guess what the heck the interviews really meant. Some things are just tough to understand without having dealt in depth with a certain common concept or occurrence.
It was always hilarious watching fans go crazy trying to guess who was going to be starter, watching people vehemently argue that a true freshman quarterback was going to start, and talking about only the players that stood out on gameday like defensive ends, kickers, and quarterbacks.
So with this, I want to peel back some layers for you as the reader. First of all, I said “tea leaves” before and people got offended and confused about what I meant. This isn’t sorcery or demon worship. I’m not channeling spirits. This is just reading between the lines. Look beyond the cliches. What do they actually mean? How do we take the canned responses and actually glean anything from them? What about someone other than the quarterback?
WKU’s Football Culture is Amazing
One thing you consistently see and even feel around this program is unity. Comments like, “What Coach Helton has built here is amazing,” “There’s an accountability that’s never this obvious immediately,” or tons of comments about the quality of leadership across the board.
I’ll be honest. When I was with the team, that’s not something that was as common. There wasn’t an obvious structure. Plenty of guys slacked off. And I’m sure some do in this program currently. But in no way were there comments about how dynamic the locker room was or anything like that. And that’s not a knock on previous years or coaches: It’s really a huge compliment to those there now that have built the WKU program into a consistent winner. It’s different than 2010.
I believe Bobby Petrino specifically targeted team captains and that really brought in some incredible leaders, but before that, all of the years I was there, it was rare that we had 20 or 30 guys that could be called on for leadership. It was maybe five that could have the respect, had the resume, and actually were able to articulate what needed to be done.
It really is different, and that’s why WKU has been so consistently the upper echelon of Conference USA since joining, for the most part.
But when you’re watching these press conferences and interviews, know that the culture thing and the “feeling in the building” comments are completely real. It’s a special atmosphere right now, and that might seem like some kind of goofy, lovey dovey non-entity, but it really matters to have a program locked and loaded and united. The teams that were most united were the ones that overachieved and seemed to get the most breaks. Funny how that works.
The Defense Should be Better Faster this Season
There’s no question last year’s defense was a nightmare the first six or so games of the season. When Randy and Terry are commenting, “If this team could just keep it under 30, this team would be undefeated right now.” That was the going trendy comment up to nearly half of the season. Then they really clicked and became one of the better defenses in the conference going forward. Part of that was opponent quality and matchup, but the bigger part was a rookie offensive coordinator trying to cobble together a defense with some obvious holes and key injuries. He and they got exponentially better throughout the season
In 2022, WKU has a better, more experienced defensive staff. New defensive coordinator Tyson Summers said on media day, “We have one of the best defensive coaching staffs I’ve ever been with.” Now is that hyperbole? Maybe? But look at the resume of the current staff compared to last year. Several replacing coaches bring a little older, more experienced feel. Summers himself has over 20 years in. He’s been a defensive coordinator before, a huge advantage as long as the person knows what they’re doing. Here’s to him being pretty good at his job.
Departing Defensive Coordinator Maurice Crum is an incredibly talented rising star that could easily work his way back to WKU as a head coach someday, but there’s no question he admitted to struggling to get some of the gameday decision-making down early. He also admitted overcomplicating the defense and deciding to make it more vanilla later in the year., which led to a more successful defense later in the season.
Summers will not deal with inexperience issues. He is already a seasoned defensive coordinator, although he may have a short period getting back in the hang of being the coordinator and not being a quality control guy. But overall, watching his press conference, this guy wreaks of experience, he’s smooth, and he’s going to be very likeable and respectable with the players. I really like this hire from Tyson Helton. I think the combination of some guys getting healthy (Will Ignont and Nick Days for sure), several players choosing to come back despite flirting with the portal, and an overall spreading out of talent across positions with that some really nice transfers has this group ready to be better earlier this season.
Rusty Staats and Gunner Britton Are Excellent Team Leaders
Anytime the offensive line comes up, and really anytime the offense comes up, these guys names are thrown in from the players as guys they’re buddies with. Rusty Staats’ interview just shows how fun of a guy he is to be around. Coaches talk about both of them as being incredibly intelligent and great leaders. The praise comes from all direction, and again, it’s really nice to see offensive linemen stepping up and being great leaders.
Offensive linemen can really be impactful in a locker room. They’re big dudes, they’re warriors that get beat up like crazy, and they’re connected to a lot of people. And frankly, they probably have to know the most information on the team. So these guys are perfectly equipped to be good leaders.
I remember the hogmollies up front busting these huge holes. I remember Adam Smith, Cody Hughes (RIP, brother), Forrest Lamp, Mychal Patterson, Sean Conway, and Max Haplin, for example just piledriving people out of the way. All of those guys were essential to success in the past. It’s nice to see great leaders, especially up front.
Quarterback Battle Is Pretty Open
I haven’t gleaned as much on the quarterback battle, and I haven’t seen anything in person except for the Spring Game. But I definitely think the staff is trying to keep it completely under wraps who is the current favorite. I believe it has felt like West Virginia transfer Jarret Doege is the man to beat over Austin Reed, grad-transfer from West Florida, with Doege taking the starting snaps in the Spring Game.
Reed is a Zappe-esque statistical monster from a lower level, while Doege is much like Ty Storey, a grad transfer from Arkansas with less gaudy numbers. Both can move. Both Storey and Zappe were incredibly successful, flirting or achieving double digits in wins in their respective seasons and setting school and (in Zappe’s case) NCAA records. Although Zappe had the obvious eye-popping numbers, Storey set the school record for completion percentage.
So it’s an interesting contrast and one that Helton and staff are keeping incredibly close to the vest. Helton went so far when asked about the QB battle to not name either of their names and just mentioned that it seems to be a two-horse race. Offensive Coordinator Ben Arbuckle did say that “Coach Helton would announce the starter when the time came”, almost suggesting they pretty much know who it would be. That could have been a slip of thought, or it could mean absolutely nothing. When there’s a battle, especially a high profile battle like the quarterback position, coaches generally keep both guys (and everyone else in the program, even), wondering who’s the real frontrunner.
I’m really not sure who the favorite is, but what Helton did say was that everybody loves them both and that it’s a close battle. They’re both referred to as really good leaders that command the room and carry themselves like starters.
Whatever happens, it does seem like Tyson outdid himself and brought in several studs, including the two seemingly at the top.
Everyone Seems to Think the Offense Will be Just as Good
From the outside, it’s hard to imagine WKU’s offense could be as good as it was last season. It stands to reason that WKU’s passing offense won’t set an NCAA record. If they do, congrats. But will the offense be as effective in some form or fashion? We don’t know that part, but every indication (and this is to be expected) is that those at the top expect to continue to stay there.
So we sift through that a little bit and it’s really tough to know how good this offense might be. We never knew if Bailey Zappe would be pretty good or if he would be an NCAA record setter. But the cast around the quarterbacks seem to be quite good. The offensive line seems to be in good shape despite losing three starters. The tight end position should be way more dynamic, with former walk-on Joey Beljan returning, multi-preseason Mackey Watchlist member Joshua Simon returning from injury, and youngster River Helms, who was mentioned in a couple of interviews, as well. Perhaps the Tops will have three threats at tight end vs having one tight end (Beljan) who was inexperienced but found a niche scoring misdirection touchdowns in the red zone. Having multiple tight end threats healthy would be something that hasn’t really happened since 2013.
Receivers are dynamite, despite losing Jerreth Sterns, a school (and nearly NCAA) record setter last season. The running backs were extremely young last season, with an “experienced” Jakairi Moses trying to shake off rust. Despite losing Noah Whittington to Oregon (following his position coach), Western seems to be in decent shape with Kyle Robichaux (big and unique; also recovered from injury), Moses, and incoming junior Davion Ervin-Poindexter (Indiana transfer).
But the huge question, despite some nice pieces, is, “How can this offense be nearly as good as a record-setter without the record-setter?” This offense could be a top 40 yardage offense and downgrade by 100 yards per game. So can the offense produce enough points to win most games? Or is the defense good enough to win a few this year?
No Standout Starter at RB
Without question, the rushing attack was not elite by any stretch (121st) in 2021. It wasn’t dead-last-by-a-mile bad like Mike Sanford’s final year at WKU, but it was not the strength of the team to say the least. With Noah Whittington transferring, it leaves less than 900 yards returning rushing yards from last season.
According to multiple interviews, it’s “Running back by committee”. That can mean two things:
You’re loaded and have two or three or more really good backs
You’re hoping to cobble together another unit and hope that the run game isn’t an obvious liability
I honestly do not think it feels like anyone is utterly blown away with the running backs WKU has, but I also don’t think this is a complete disaster, either. Moses has shown flashes of greatness in his lengthy career at WKU. Keep him healthy and he’s a threat in the run and pass. Robichaux is a freak in that he’s nearly fullback big but can catch the ball out of the backfield. That’s a fascinating weapon. Then you have Indiana transfer Davion Ervin-Poindexter, who brings Power 5 talent to a room needing top-end talent. Also, three-star Gardendale, Alabama, high school prospect L.T. Sanders had a bunch of Group of Five offers and chose to come join the Tops.
We heard rumblings in the spring that he could be a dark horse to carry the rock immediately, at least on a part-time basis. Heck, Zavione Wood was a two-star that went to Virginia Tech. Just the Power 5 label makes you wonder if he is a sleeper. There’s some interesting thoughts there, but my distinct impression so far is that there is no declared starter and I would not be shocked if Helton does his “OR” Special, where he names the starter as this guy or this guy or possibly this guy, too.
Defensive Line Needs to Get a Better Pass Rush
I haven’t seen a ton on this, but I did see where there was a fleeting comment from Helton himself that they “still needed to work on a pass rush” after the scrimmage Saturday. That suggests to me he’s not satisfied with where that stands. Also, it completely stands to reason. You lost a third-round edge rusher who did his part with his sacks, but also roamed all over the field for nearly 100 tackles last year.
So who replaces Malone? There were tons of flashes, and some of your issue was injury up front and also to some key linebackers. But flashes were seen from interior and exterior linemen that could really blossom. But again, somebody actually has to, or this pass rush could take a massive step backwards. Everyone liked to think of it as the Deebo show. But DeAngelo Malone was not the only player producing big plays for the Tops. He was just the lone consistent playmaker among the front six.
Kicker Battle is Wide Open
Although this may not be shocking or even exciting or interesting to some, Brayden Narveson and Cory Munson are two really high-quality kickers. WKU has been very fortunate to keep both on hand, because both were incredible over the past several years. Munson has been the kickoff specialist, where he boomed 35 touchbacks and was almost always putting the Tops in an excellent field position after a score. Narveson was a Groza semifinalist in 2020 and missed a few kicks that kept him from that conversation in 2021.
But this battle should be interesting and could end up with Cory Munson back in charge of over half of the special teams kicking duties.
The Punting Game Will be Much Different Post-Haggerty
John Haggerty was a generational talent in terms of the kind of kicker that would happen to end up at most Group of Five schools. The man was so long and could just boom it. Likely punter (and fellow Australian) Tom Ellard as much as said he was not going to be John Haggerty and that he also needed to work on his accuracy. Judging by Spring Game performance and even warm-up before, he can definitely boom it occasionally, but he’s far less consistent and far less explosive. He’s going to shank it a few times.
And don’t underestimate the power of a great punter. Haggerty had only one touchback last season while booming the ball for nearly 49 yards per punt. Let’s say Ellard has a (really good) 44 yards per punt average. That would still likely be a top 25 caliber punter, but would still mean the Tops lose five more yards of length after every possession and it’s incredibly unlikely that Ellard does not accumulate more than one touchback. So as we go through the season, watch for how punting affects the field position battle. Hopefully, it won’t matter as much.
Offensive Line Still Meshing
Tyson Helton made a comment about officials missing several false starts by the o-line. This was something that did come up alarmingly often last year for such an incredible unit. Western had some drive killers that were really frustrating.
That’s to be expected with any line, especially if they don’t really know each other yet. However, as long as they get it together and learn assignments and snap counts by the first game, who cares? But watch for some rookie mistakes early. Watch for Doege or Reed to have to scramble out of a jail break because of miscommunication.
Western should be really good and fine up front, but watch for miscues and miscommunication. Hopefully that doesn’t cost a game or two early in the year.
Overall Impression of the Tops so Far: They’ll be Good.
I would love to proclaim 13-0 and 15-0 and FBS champions. However, that’s virtually impossible, so let’s try to be realistic. You’re losing statistical monsters in key positions on all three sides of the ball. So do you have the horses to run the same race? That remains to be seen, but when you have such elite play and production to replace, there’s just naturally going to be some kind of downturn in those areas. Will any defensive lineman get nine sacks and four forced fumbles and nearly 100 tackles? Will anyone on the defense come close to 100 tackles? Heck, Haggerty’s another huge piece lost. And then there’s the offense. WKU loses three starters up front, all of which were part of a historically good offensive line to the tune of one of the best in a decade. There’s Zappe and Sterns and others who are lost, as well.
So Jarret Doege or Austin Reed could come in and be Brandon Doughty and be 1,000 total yards less productive. Ellard could be a Hendrix Brakefield or Jake Collins type in terms of production and be clearly inferior to Haggerty’s booming leg. The wide receiver corps is probably as equally equipped to be as good in these areas, but still, Jerreth Sterns was an all-time phenomenon. Bailey Zappe surpassed all expectation.
So how do the Tops repeat last season? I think they need luck and I think they need to have several areas just completely and totally surprise us in a good way.
I would say WKU will be good but not great this year. With a tough schedule and these production losses, 7-6, 8-5 area seems to be what most people agree on.