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TGS 2019 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT CUSA--PART I

                                  b
y Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We continue our TGS previews for the 2019 College Football season with a look at the Eastern half of Conference USA. As usual, teams are listed in their predicted order of finish, with 2018 straight-up, spread, and over/under records included.


To many, Butch Davis dropped off of the radar when his coaching career at North Carolina ended somewhat ignominiously in 2011, apparently running afoul of the NCAA (which, in its subsequent report, never mentioned Davis by name; when it comes to the NCAA and Chapel Hill, what ever makes sense anyway? But we digress...). To those who might not be paying attention to what has been going on lately in Conference USA (don’t worry, we won’t hold it against you), Davis resurfaced at Florida International (2018 SUR 9-4; PSR 10-3; O/U 8-5) and quickly made the Golden Panthers relevant, with bowl visits in each of his two years in charge. Time, perhaps, to begin to acknowledge Davis as one of the underappreciated coaches of his generation? After all, he re-ignited the Miami Hurricanes program before taking a stab in te NFL with the recently-reincarnated Browns, whose only playoff qualification in their second iteration has come under Davis in 2002. Butch then won consistently at Chapel Hill before quickly getting FIU on the right track. It’s the proverbial good fit for everyone in Miami, with the Golden Panthers more than happy to have such an accomplished coach, and the 67-year-old Davis intending to make this the last stop of a long career that first came to prominence as Jimmy Johnson’s d.c. for Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl winners in the early ‘90s, after a decade working for Johnson at Oklahoma State and “the U” before moving to the NFL.

The pieces are in place for not only another bowl run but something much more meaningful for the Golden Panthers this fall (we’ll get to the schedule dynamics in a moment). The key link on offense, former Bowling Green transfer QB James Morgan, remains in the fold for another year after becoming a revelation in 2018 with almost 2800 YP and 26 TDS (vs. just 7 interceptions) and pacing an attack that led C-USA in scoring at nearly 35 ppg. Morgan even missed the Bahamas Bowl win over Toledo due to injury but was back in the mix in spring and welcomes most of his key receiving targets; nine of the top ten pass-catchers from 2018 return, led by WR Maurice Alexander (40 catches LY). The top four rushers are also back for an encore, paced by slashing jr. D’Vonte Price (560 YR in 2018). The question on the attack end is along the OL where four starters must be replaced, though many of last year’s rotation pieces will simply slide into the starting lineup, and LG Logan Gunderson is a touted juco addition. And when drives stall, there’s always jr. PK Jose Borregales, who nailed five FGs of better than 40 yards a year ago.

Davis, a defensive coach by trade, was working with co-d.c.’s Jeff Copp and Jerod Kruse in spring to improve techniques and coverages for the D, but enough playmakers return to make the Golden Panthers respectable once again on the stop end. Especially in the secondary, which probably rates as the best in C-USA if not the entirety of the Group of 5 ranks, with three of four starters from an accomplished 2018 pass defense still in the mix. Last year’s switch of the regal sounding Stanley Thomas-Oliver from WR to CB paid dividends when he broke up a team-high 10 passes. Senior MLB Sage Lewis led C-USA in both solo (83) and total (132) tackles a year ago. The concern on the platoon is shoring up the run defense that leaked a bit much last season, hoping to set up more second-and-long and third-and-long situations that ought to play right into the hands of the ballhawks in the secondary who helped key the Golden Panthers’ C-USA best TO margin (+9).

Oh yes, that schedule. It is not beyond reason to project FIU at 9-0 heading into the home stretch  in November.  That's when things could get very dicey, closing with East showdown games at nearby FAU in the Shula Bowl and Marshall, sandwiched around a rare home date vs. the local Miami Hurricanes who were convinced to play the Golden Panthers on the road in a venue that seats about 45,000 less than their Hard Rock Stadium home a few miles north. September dates at Tulane and La Tech are tricky, but the Golden Panthers have a better than puncher’s chance vs. each, and a third straight bowl for the first time in school history should be a lay-up. No surprise if the East title comes down to the finale on the road vs. the Thundering Herd. And who knows? If everything falls into place, FIU could become an unlikely contender for a New Year’s Six bowl spot reserved for the top Group of 5 entry.

Spread-wise, FIU was one of the nation’s best performers a year ago when recording a 10-3 mark against the number, including covers in all six games away from home. The Golden Panthers were also 4-0 as a dog, and Davis has now covered his last six getting points in regular-season action. Also note that Davis is 6-0 as a home dog the past two seasons, though only 2-6 as chalk at FIU Stadium that span. The Golden Panthers also covered all five of their games outside of C-USA a year ago.


They’re used to winning at Marshall (2018 SUR 9-4; PSR 5-8; O/U 9-4), which looks to have made a pretty good deal for itself when hiring Doc Holliday off of the West Virginia staff nine years ago. All Holliday has done is stabilize a program that had stagnated for predecessor Mark Snyder. Best of all, Holliday (70-46 in nine seasons at Huntington) has never appeared interested in leaving the Herd, which gave him his first head coaching opportunity at the age of 53. Having spent most of his life in the state (including playing days in the late 70s for the Mountaineers), Holliday has proven a great fit at Marshall, while using his connections in the south that were developed during assistant stints at NC State and Florida to good advantage. The Sunshine State pipeline continues pumping at Marshall, too, as several Floridians, along with Georgians, dominate the latest Herd list of recruits.

With seven starters back from a well-balanced offense that gained 166 ypg rushing and 228 ypg passing a year ago, Doc looks to have another C-USA contender on his hands. Plenty of upside exists for soph QB Isaiah Green, who still had a few rough spots to smooth over as a frosh but ended up passing for almost 2500 yards and 15 TDs in his debut, earning a spot on the C-USA All-Freshman team in the process. There is established depth in the backfield with RBs Tyler King (656 YR before a midseason leg injury) and Brenden Knox (655 YR after taking over the featured role following King’s injury). Though Green will be looking for another go-to target after the departure of WR Tyre Brady (NFL Jags camp this summer), who led Herd receivers each of the past two years, VPI transfer Tavin Richardson could alleviate some of those concerns, while sr. Obi Obialo (42 catches in 2018) emerged as a solid possession receiver a year ago. Four starters also return along the OL plus 350-lb. LT Josh Ball, who started nine games at Florida State in 2017 before transferring to Butler JC last fall.

Holliday thinks he hit a homerun with the hire of his new d.c., Brad Lambert, who fashioned one of the region’s gnarliest stop units while HC at Charlotte a year ago. The key will be replacing four starters along a front seven that helped the Herd post the nation’s 8th-best rushing defense a year ago. To fortify the line, Lambert moved Ty Tyler from DE to DT in spring, which also provided room for Darius Hodge (who played well late in 2018) and Koby Cumberlander to get on the field at the same time and pressure opposing QBs from DE spots. Even though decorated S Malik Grant left a year early for the NFL Draft, the strength of the platoon should be the secondary which returns plenty of experience, including sr. CB Chris Jackson, who will become a 4-year starter in the fall.

For the first time in five years, Marshall doesn’t get any Power 5 conference foes on the schedule. But don’t think the Herd is taking it easy, as a trip to perennial Group of 5 power Boise State, plus a home date vs. a Cincinnati side that won 11 games a year ago, highlights the non-league portion of the slate. There’s also a Huntington date vs. Frank Solich’s Ohio squad that might be the preseason pick to win the MAC. Even if the Herd comes up empty in all of those, expect Doc to get Marshall back to its sixth bowl in seven seasons, and perhaps involved in a C-USA East showdown for all of the marbles in the season-ender on November 30 vs. Butch Davis and FIU.

Spread-wise, Holliday has alternated winning and losing seasons the past four years, though recently has performed much the best in the underodg role (8-2 the past two seasons, with 6-0 of that coming in 2017). Also note four straight wins and covers in openers, though this year that will mean laying a mountain of points to big underdog VMI. And when we get to December, don’t forget six straight wins and covers in bowls for Holliday, with the Herd actually 7-0 SU and vs. the line in howls since 2009 (the year before Doc arrived) after last December’s 38-20 romp past USF in the St. Pete Gasparilla Bowl.


We’re sure glad Lane Kiffin hasn’t decided to paraphrase Richard Nixon’s famous quote after losing the Caifornia gubernatiorial election to Pat Brown in 1962 (“You don’t have Kiffin to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen,  this is my last press conference”). We rather enjoy the unpredictability and inanity of Kiffin, who’s a bit on the periphery these days at Florida Atlantic (2018 SUR 5-7; PSR 3-8-1; O/U 6-6). Boca Raton is a long way from the Southern Cal, Tennessee, Alabama, and the Oakland Raiders, all employers of Kiffin at one time or another the past 12 years.  And after a rousing 11-3 breakthrough and C-USA title in his maiden season with the Owls in 2017, many believed Kiffin’s stay at FAU would be brief. But no serious offers materialized, and it can't be the fault of super-agent Jimmy Sexton, whose powers of persuasion are probably good enough to get Sean Hannity hired at CNN. So, while the bridges burned in the past are still under some repair, Kiffin, for the moment, seems content in Boca Raton, though for now probably had no other choice as the "Lane Train" from 2017 never got on the tracks in the dip to 5-7 a year ago. Which meant Sexton’s cell phone wasn’t buzzing with calls from many Kiffin suitors last winter.

With two such differing campaigns on Kiffin’s watch at FAU, the Owls rate as a bit of a hard team to peg entering the fall. The departure of almost all of the top skill-position weapons, including ultra-productive RB Devin Singletary (1348 YR in 2018 plus 66 career TDs), from last year’s 31 ppg offense, suggests a return to 2017 form might be a bit far-fetched. Though Kiffin’s offensive mindset and up-tempo attack, honed at the knee of the respected Norm Chow during Pete Carroll’s days at USC, remains capable of big production. It might simply come down to getting improved QB play for the Owls to soar again this fall, and for a time in spring it looked as if ex-Florida State pilot Deondre Francois was about to enroll in Boca Raton. But Francis was ultimately denied admission and at last report was looking at landing spots in the SWAC, leaving the QB spot to returnee Chris Robison, who has had something of a rollercoaster career to date. That might be putting it mildly; Robison had already been dismissed at Oklahoma before taking a snap at FAU, where he stared 11 of 12 games a year ago, before another suspension in January related to a sexual battery allegation. Those charges were eventually dropped and Robison reinstated in June, but not before he would miss all of spring practice. Regional observers expect Robison to beat out Indiana transfer Nick Tronti and take snaps again in the fall, but after just 12 TDP and 12 picks a year ago, there is room for improvement while Kiffin and staff hope that Robison (who was earlier kicked out of OU for public intoxication) has grown up and will become a bit more responsible like Baker Mayfield and not another Johnny Manziel.

Kiffin’s job is cut out for him in the fall, however, after so many of his skill performers opted early for the NFL Draft; besides Buffalo Bills draftee Singletary, backup RB Kenneth Whyte and his 866 YR were drafted by the Bears in the 7th round, and key WR Jovan Durante and his 65 catches in 2018 also left early. Durante’s departure, on top of four other wideouts who transferred out, has left the Owls a bit thin at WR, though Robison still has some established targets in slot-back Willie Wright (46 catches last year) and TE Harrison Bryant (45 catches in 2018), who has NFL scouts interested. During his o.c. days at Bama, Kiffin became familiar with RB B.J. Emmons, who has transferred from Tuscaloosa and likely to get the first crack at taking most of Singletary’s carries. The OL got good news in the offseason when C Junior Diaz was granted a sixth year of eligibility.

Kiffin is also working on his third d.c. in as many years after Tony Pecorano’s stint did not go well in 2018. But Kiffin thinks he has landed a ringer in ex-Charlotte d.c. Glenn Spencer, who coordinated a surprisingly-stout 49er defense last fall before getting the boot with the rest of Brad Lambert’s staff. Players were said to have embraced Spencer’s read-and-react schemes in spring, with sr. OLB Rashad Smith appearing the star of the platoon after leading FAU in tackles a year ago. Up front, a couple of former transfers, ex-USC Noah Jefferson and ex-juco Charles Cameron, look like potential disruptors on the 4-man line. Sources believe FAU might have as much talent as any C-USA team in the secondary, with jr. SS Zyon Gilbert a likely future NFL draftee.

If we admire anything about FAU, it’s the Owls’ machismo; after getting napalmed by Oklahoma 63-14 in the opener last season that got 2018 off on the wrong foot, Kiffin draws...Ohio State in Columbus to kick things off this season. Then comes UCF, which at least will be trekking to Boca Raton, but has lost just once over the last two seasons combined, and dropped a 56-point bomb on the Owls a year ago in Orlando. If Kiffin can find a suitable QB and a runner to replace the ultra-productive Singletary, however, it would be no surprise if FAU has fully recovered by time of a midseason East showdown at home vs. Marshall. There should be enough wins in this schedule to get Kiffin back to a bowl, but we are not holding our breath for anything resembling the 11-3 fun ride of two years ago.

Spread-wise, Kiffin authored a cautionary tale last fall; be careful not to assume spread success will continue from one year to the next. After FAU closed 2017 on a 10-2-1 spread uptick, the Owls sagged to 3-8-1 a season ago, when Kiffin also covered just 1 of 8 chances as chalk after a 9-2 mark laying points in 2017. FAU also dropped all four vs. the line in non-league play last season.


Forgive us for sometimes thinking that QB Brent Stockstill was as much a permanent fixture at Middle Tennessee (2018 SUR 8-6; PSR 8-6; O/U 7-7) as his dad, head coach Rick, the former QB for some of Bobby Bowden’s best early editions at Florida State and beginning his 14th season as a Murfreesboro institution this fall. But it only seemed as if the young Stockstill had ten years of eligibility with the Blue Raiders, for whom he totaled 12,483 passing yards in a decorated career. And, for what it’s worth, papa Rick had taken MTSU to four bowls even before his son took a college snap. For the latter reason, we don’t expect the Blue Raiders to drop off of the map this fall, as if nothing else, the program has achieved a level of consistency for Stockstill. Thus getting back to a fifth straight postseason appearance appears within reach, even though MTSU is not rated among the favorites in the East.

But since Brent (who, by the way, decided not to give it a go as a free agent in NFL camps this summer and has instead embarked upon a coaching career like his dad, and hired as an assistant by Lane Kiffin at FAU) is no longer taking snaps, lots of attention is going to be paid to the QB spot in Murfreesboro. Holdover soph Asher O’Hara saw brief work in relief of Stockstill as a frosh, though most eyes at MTSU seem to be on juco transfer Randall Johnson, a bruising 235-lb. dual threat who also rushed for almost 800 yards at Reedley (Cal.) College last fall. Stockstill and o.c. Tony Franklin, a spread devotee, are likely to work in some calls to take advantage of Johnson’s mobility, which should also help an infantry that generated only 133 ypg a year ago, ranking 108th. Electric soph RB Chaton Mobley, who gained 660 YR as a frosh, should benefit from having another runner in the backfield, even if it's the QB (should Johnson win the job). Senior WR Ty Lee also returns after a team-best 71 catches a year ago, and soph wideout Zack Dobson hinted at becoming a big-play threat as a frosh. The question mark remains an OL that struggled at times the past two seasons and will not have the benefit of protecting a QB with a quick release as Brent Stockstill the past few years.

The Blue Raiders have also evolved defensively the past couple of seasons years under former Syracuse HC Scott Shafer, whose blitz packages helped MTSU force the most turnovers in C-USA a year ago. Though only five starters return, safeties Jovante Moffatt (who lead MTSU with 101 tackles in 2017 before missing much of last season with a shoulder injury) and Reed Blankenship (team-best 107 tackles LY) might be two of the top NFL prospects in the league and provide extra cover in the last line of defense. OLBs Khalil Brooks and D.Q. Thomas also each recorded 14.5 tackles for loss a year ago and provide reliable pressure from the edge. But finding a new pair of CBs and developing some depth will be crucial factors to the platoon preventing a step backwards this fall.

Schedule-wise, MTSU usually doesn’t duck anyone in non-conference play and won’t this fall, either, as the Blue Raiders will be substituting their normal paydays at SEC locales for trips into the Big Ten at Michigan and Iowa. Stockstill does get Duke, another annual bowl qualifier these days, at home, and we think it’s interesting how a school like MTSU can have a far more-challenging non-conference slate than almost any entry from the SEC or ACC. (We’re not holding our breath, however, for Georgia or Alabama or Clemson to schedule games at Michigan and Iowa). If MTSU isn’t too beaten up by its challenging non-C USA slate, it might be able to slip into a fifth straight bowl, and if it does so will probably be rallying down the stretch when the schedule eases considerably in November.

Spread-wise, Stockstill has been remarkably consistent, right around .500 each season for the past several years, much as his SU record. Within those numbers, the Blue Raiders have performed best lately at home, covering 8 of 12 at Murfreesboro the past two seasons. One positive for MTSU this season is no Vandy, as Derek Mason has made sure his Commodores handled the nearby Blue Raiders, winning and covering each of the four meetings since 2015. MTSU has also lost big and failed to cover its last three on the road vs. Power 5 foes, which might not bode well for trips to Big Ten land at Michigan and Iowa. Just in case Stockstill reaches the postseason, note he’s covered in just 1 of his last 6 bowl visits.


Well, so much for loyalty! Tasked with the difficult assignment of getting a start-up program at Charlotte (2018 SUR 5-7; PSR 7-5; O/U 6-6) competitive at the FBS level after two ramp-up seasons, you’d think that Brad Lambert would have been due a little slack after the 49ers just missed bowl eligibility a year ago when finishing 5-7. But Lambert also hadn’t produced a winning record in six campaigns, so maybe it wasn’t a matter of Charlotte doing a George Steinbrenner imitation after all. Whatever, Lambert was moved out after last season and replaced by 34-year-old Will Healy, who thinks inheriting the 49er job is a dream compared his last assignment at Austin Peay, which was 1-34 in the 35 games before Healy took command in Clarksville. After an 0-11 debut, his Guvs won a combined 13 games the next two seasons, including a second-place finish in the Ohio Valley. Healy’s enthusiasm is said to be infectious, which might be another reason he was brought to Charlotte, where the program needs a proper promoter to sell itself to a city more preoccupied with the NFL and NBA these days.

Though Healy could be as glib as Muhammad Ali once was and nobody outside Charlotte’s 980 area code would notice, he does inherit a few building blocks in this prototype under-the-radar assignment. Though only five starters return on offense, they include most of the key contributors, including blasting RB Benny ("Curtis") LeMay, who burned for 1243 YR a year ago without much help from the passing game. Top receiver Victor Tucker (54 catches, third among the nation’s frosh in 2018) and All-CUSA LT Cameron Clark are also still in the fold. As are both of the QBs (soph Chris Reynolds and former Miami transfer Evan Shirreffs) who took snaps a year ago. Though there is a chance that South Florida grad transfer Brett Kean, resigned to sitting behind Blake Barnett in Tampa and desiring a chance to play somewhere before his eligibility exhausted, could be taking snaps for Healy and o.c. Alex Atkins in the fall. With background as a passing game coordinator during his pre-Peay assistant days at Chattanooga, expect Healy’s offense to be a bit more creative, if northing else, than the Lambert offenses that mostly lacked personality or identity. Look for plenty of zone-read as well as play-action on passing downs in the new-style 49er offense, which will also have to re-school the OL (two starters back, including aforementioned LT Clark) in the fall.

The encouragement at Jerry Richardson Stadium, however, is on the defensive side where a robust collection of eight starters return from what was quietly one of the better platoons in the region last season. You could win a few bar bets and fool adversaries who might have no idea that the 49ers ranked 9th nationally vs. the rush and a very respectable 22nd overall a year ago. Healy is hoping that his preferred 4-2-5 looks translate to the returning personnel., which features All-CUSA DE Alex Highsmith and last year’s top two 49er tacklers, S Ben DeLuca and LB Jeff Gemmell. Tennessee grad transfer CB Marquill Osborne played three years for the Vols and could work his way into the lineup.

No game is a gimme for Charlotte, so we’re hesitant to forecast a real breakthrough. But we’ll say that it is very likely the 49ers split their non-conference games (wins at home vs. Gardner-Webb and UMass; a likely loss on the road at App State...and, well, do we have to comment upon the game at Clemson?). But given that Charlotte was one win from bowl eligibility last fall, it would be no surprise to see Healy get the 49ers competitive this fall. After all, compared to the rebuild Healy had to deal with at Austin Peay, he might feel like he’s at Notre Dame this year.

Spread-wise, Charlotte’s brief history at the FBS level has seen the 49ers live almost exclusively as an underdog; Lambert’s teams were made favorites just four times in the past four seasons combined. Within those parameters, Charlotte fared best as a home dog, especially the last two seasons when covering 6 of 9 getting points at Jerry Richardson Stadium. We assume new HC Healy is going to be working within some of the same pointsprad parameters this term.


The ride has become pretty bumpy the last couple of years at Old Dominion (2018 SUR 4-8; PSR 5-7; O/U 9-3), which made a smooth transition to the FBS ranks and even earned a bowl bid in 2016 for HC Bobby Wilder, who has overseen a revival of the program in Norfolk that resurrected in 2009. Wilder quickly got the Monarchs relevant in the FCS ranks and featured a swashbuckling QB, Taylor Heinicke, who won the Walter Payton and Dudley Awards in 2012 and continues to kick around in the NFL, where he is likely to be featured again in August as Cam Newton’s primary backup for the Panthers. After the move up the FBS level and C-USA, Wilder continued to get good QB play from a converted WR, David Washington, in the Bahamas Bowl season of 2016, though QB play has sagged since. As has the defense, which really struggled in 2018 (more on the stop unit in a moment). But Wilder remains well-respected, and proved he could cobble together some big efforts when the Monarchs won outright twice a year ago as heavy double-digit underdogs against Virginia Tech and North Texas.

To be a bit more consistent and perhaps get in the bowl mix again this season, more reliability is needed from the QBs, though ODU did score better than 30 ppg a year ago. Who orchestrates the offense remains to be seen; Blake LaRussa, who piloted last year’s huge upset of VPI, left school to join the seminary, and soph Steven Williams, who as a 17-year frosh in 2017 was thrown to the wolves and earned C-USA All-Frosh honors, likely contributes more at WR this fall. A pair of jucos, all-name Messiah deWeaver (he’d better be good with a first name like that) and Stone Smartt, will likely resolve their battle for the starting job in fall. Wilder has enlisted ex-Virginia Tech aide Bryan Stinespring to enliven what was a sporadic infantry a season ago, and improvement there will be important as not only will Wilder be likely breaking in a new QB, but 92% of last season’s receptions have also departed. It is hoped that VPI transfer Eric Kumah, who caught 42 passes for 7 TDs with the Hokies last fall, could become a force in C-USA. Though in all, Gs Tony Barnett and Isaac Weaver are the only starters returning on the attack end.

Whatever might happen when ODU has the ball, there won’t be a return to a bowl for the first time since 2016 if the D doesn’t make upgrades from a leaky platoon that allowed nearly 36 ppg and ranked in triple digits in all relevant categories last season, including a poor 118th in total defense. Seeking improvement, Wilder enlisted vet d.c. David Blackwell, who has experienced past success at ECU, Jacksonville State, and Fordham with his aggressive 4-2-5 schemes. Blackwell’s employment of a “Bandit” (a versatile OLB used to attack QBs when not dropping back into pass coverage) is one main difference from a year ago, though effectively replacing star DE Oshane Ximines (3rd round pick of the Giants) will be crucial. Soph Marcus Haynes, a DE last fall, seamlessly stepped into the new Bandit role in spring. Still, only four starters return, so Wilder and Blackwell hit the jucos hard looking for a quick fix; 11 of those alone arrive to help on the stop end.

Though ODU ought to be able to break quickly with its opener against cross-town Norfolk State, we’re not sure this Monarch edition is up to facing the two ACC big boys from the Commonwealth in the next two games. Especially with both on the road; more especially with VPI looking to avenge last year’s stunning 49-35 loss as a near 4-TD favorite in Norfolk, before the Monarchs are saddled as a big underdog at Virginia on September 21. What appear to be the more-winnable C-USA games are being played at home, but after getting overrun on so many occasions last season, we’re not sure there’s enough offense in Norfolk to compensate and get ODU back into the bowl mix.

Spread-wise, the brief period of magic that Wilder experienced in 2016 has been absent the past two seasons as the Monarchs have underachieved vs. the number. ODU has been particularly unreliable as chalk, covering just 2 of 8 tries the past two campaigns. Wilder has also covered just 4 of 11 in Norfolk the past two seasons after an undefeated mark in his preceding eight games (7-0-1) as host.


What in the name of Vance Joseph is going on at Western Kentucky (2018 SUR 3-9; PR 6-5-1; O/U 5-7)? It wasn’t quite the demolition job that we saw at New Mexico when Mike Lockelsy was in charge of the Lobos a decade ago, but the precipitous drop the Hilltoppers endured from the heady years of the Jeff Brohm era suggested a blown coaching hire. To their credit, WKU administrators admitted their mistake on Mike Sanford, who merely became the latest decorated coordinator ill-suited to a head coaching job. Not even a brief rally at the end of a desultory 3-9 campaign last fall could save Sanford, who, like NFL counterpart Joseph in Denver, would last just two disappointing years on the job.

Riding to the rescue in Bowling Green is brash Tyson Helton, a former aide on Brohm’s Hilltopper staffs and most recently the o.c. at Tennessee. If the last name sounds familiar it’s because brother Clay is HC at USC (where Tyson was QB coach and passing game coordinator during 2016-17), and papa Kim was HC a couple of decades ago for the Houston Cougars. Unlike the personable, but a bit droll, Clay, Tyson is a buzzsaw of energy, outgoing and effervescent. Though Dale Carnegie students will think that’s all swell, will WKU regret going the coordinator route as it did with Sanford, who was also a well-regarded, up-and-comer from the offensive side hired a couple of years ago?

Helton does inherit plenty of experience on attack, where nine starters return, but we’re not sure that’s a good thing after WKU sagged to 118th nationally in scoring at just 21 ppg, a far cry from the 44 ppg offense the Tops featured when Helton was last on staff at this locale with Brohm. Improved play at QB is a must; it could come from Arkansas grad transfer Ty Storey, who passed for 11 TDs and almost 1600 yards last year for the Razorbacks, and who likely gets the nod heading into fall over holdover jr. Steven Duncan, who flashed a bit of upside when taking over the job down the stretch in 2018. Most of the key weapons return, including slashing RB Joshua Samuel (641 YR in 2018), and top pass-catcher Lucky Jackson (51 catches LY). The OL is also back en masse. But the big play was mostly absent from the WKU attack the past two years, and one of the first chores of Helton and his new o.c. Bryan Ellis is to better stretch the field.

Helton thought enough of d.c. Clayton White to hold him over in the same role from the Sanford staff. White’s 4-2-5 looks should feature familiar pressure from the edge where DEs DeAngelo Malone and Juwaun Jones generated a recurring push a year ago. The transfer of LB Ben Holt (LY’s leading tackler now playing for dad Nick, who is d.c. at Purdue, with Brohm) was a bit of an offseason jolt, as was the spring foot injury suffered by former Kentucky transfer LB Eli Brown, who on occasion resembled a real playmaker last fall but whose status for 2019 remained a bit up in the air into summer. There is some returning experience in the secondary with CB Roger Cray and SS Devon Key both C-USA honors candidates. Six starters return for a stop unit that mostly held its own a year ago, not always easy with the offensive shortcomings, all of which impressed Helton enough to keep d.c. White on board.

Schedule-wise, we suppose Helton could have it worse, though we cringe at the Army matchup in mid-October, with no extra time to prepare for the punishing Black Knight option and accompanying brutal trench warfare. And if Louisville and Arkansas improve to prior levels after their respective poor efforts of 2017, the non-conference part of the slate could end up looking downright diabolical. If one assumes that all of the Tops’ problems the past two years were simply down to Sanford being over his head, perhaps a quick recovery is in the cards. (And that seems to be a popular opinion in Las Vegas.) But we’re not so sure; Helton is awfully reminiscent of predecessor Sanford two years ago, and unless Helton’s rah-rah ignites a spark, maybe the recent slide continues. We’re not ready to impose a glass half-full scenario just yet for WKU.

Spread-wise, Sanford recovered slightly a year ago (6-5-1 vs. line, compared to 4-9 in 2017) as the Tops took advantage of some heavy numbers laid by the opposition, but the better days of the Brohm era still seemed way back in the rear-view mirror. Note that WKU was a double-digit dog five times alone last season compared to just three times for the entirety of the preceding Brohm regime (2014-16). Will Helton get the benefit of big prices as did Sanford a year ago?


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