There were a lot of changes on the Hilltop this season. With a new set of coordinators, a new starting quarterback, and a plethora of returning starters and transfers alike, what can we expect from the Hilltoppers this season?
First, we’ve got to take a dive deep into the coaching staff for the 2021 season and make note of its changes.
On the offensive side of the ball, we saw head coach Tyson Helton bring on Zach Kittley as the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. This shook up the staff, moving previous offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis to co-offensive coordinator and inside receivers coach. The previous co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach, Ryan Aplin, left following the 2020 season to join Arkansas State.
The addition of Kittley is a big one, and could very easily bring the offense to new heights in 2021. Previously, Kittley served as the offensive coordinator for the FCS’ Houston Baptist. His Air Raid offense, and transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe, put up 1,833 yards, 15 touchdowns, and just one interception across just four games. The Huskies faced off against North Texas, LA Tech, Eastern Kentucky, and Texas Tech in 2020. Despite going 1-3, the offensive unit did an outstanding job in each game, throwing for 480 yards and three touchdowns against North Texas, 406 yards and five touchdowns against LA Tech, 380 yards and three touchdowns against Eastern Kentucky, and 567 yards and four touchdowns against Texas Tech. Zappe’s 458.3 yards per game was the best in the nation, the next closest being Dillon Gabriel (UCF, 357 yards per game). The Huskies had the #1 passing game in the FCS in 2020.
Kittley wasn’t the only offensive coach added for 2021, though. WKU also introduced outside receivers coach Josh Crawford and running backs coach Carlos Locklyn.
Crawford was a prolific high school coach in Georgia before joining Western Kentucky. In 2020, Crawford served as the assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator at Colquitt County High School. The team finished with a 9-1 record, averaging over 40 points per game. Prior to that, Crawford was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Valdosta High School from 2018 to 2019. Crawford turned an offense that averaged 18 points and 189 yards per game to one that scored 501 points and totaled 5,573 yards in 2018, averaging 38 points and 429 yards per game. In 2019, despite an entirely new offensive line and losing it’s top three targets from 2018, Valdosta HS hosted the #1 scoring offense in Class 6A, again eclipsing the 500 point park with 505 points.
Locklyn comes from Florida State, where was the director of high school relations in 2020. From 2017 to 2019, he was with Memphis under head coach Mike Norvell, serving in roles like weight room assistant (2017), offensive analyst (2018), and the same role he took on a year later at Florida State, director of high school relations, in 2019. Prior to that, Locklyn was an offensive coordinator at the high school level, including Westwood (2010-11), Manassas (2012-14), and Cordova (2015-16).
What should you take away from this? The Hilltop added good depth on the coaching staff, with Crawford coming in hot after doing a really impressive job as a coordinator, and Locklyn coming in with valuable recruiting experience, having helped Memphis in producing the 66th ranked recruiting class in 2020 (17 spots better than WKU) and Florida State in bringing in the 23rd ranked recruiting class in 2021 (116 spots better than WKU).
Now, we take a look at the defensive coaching staff changes.
Following previous defensive coordinator Clayton White’s departure to South Carolina, the Hilltoppers promoted Maurice Crum to full-time defensive coordinator. From 2017 to 2019, Crum served as the linebackers coach, adding the co-defensive coordinator title in 2020. Since 2017, the Hilltoppers defense has ranked 66th (2017), 76th (2018), 22nd (2019), and then in Crum’s first year as a play-caller, 28th (2020) nationally.
The transition to Crum as the full-time defensive coordinator should be seamless, and we could see an even better defense than last year. The defensive staff saw the addition of two coaches, with Pat Bastien hired to coach the linebackers unit, and Keynodo Hudson to take over the cornerbacks room.
Bastien comes from Marshall, where he coached the cornerbacks during the 2020 season. The Thundering Herd finished with the #1 defense in the nation, where it finished first in points allowed (13.0), fourth in rushing defense (95.5), 11th in passing defense (189.3 yards), and second in total defense (279.4 yards). A pupil of Bastien, cornerback Steven Gilmore, was voted to the 2020 All-Conference USA First Team. Prior to Marshall, Bastien was the assistant director of player development at Georgia in 2018 and 2019, where the Bulldogs made back-to-back Sugar Bowl appearances. In 2016 and 2017, Bastien was the linebackers coach at Georgia Southern. In his first year, two of his linebackers finished with over 100 tackles, one being named to the All-Sun Belt Conference First Team, and the other on the All-Sun Belt Conference Newcomer team. Bastien is a very valuable hire for a young, new linebacker corps that lost key pieces following 2020, and for a defense seeking to keep itself a top-30 unit to take the Conference USA.
Hudson arrived in Bowling Green after spending two seasons in Illinois. In 2020, Illinois tied for sixth in the Big Ten with seven interceptions in eight games. Prior to Illinois, Hudson spent 2017 and 2018 at FAU. In his first season at FAU in 2017, Hudson helped the Owls finish second nationally with a program-record 20 interceptions. FAU’s defense ranked 34th nationally in 2017. Prior to FAU, Hudson spent 2012-16 as a defensive administration assistant for USC, where was an important part of recruiting. USC’s recruiting classes finished #8 (2012), #13 (2013), #10 (2014), #2 (2015), and #10 (2016) in his time there. The Trojan’s defenses ranked #41 (2012), #16 (2013), #47 (2014), #50 (2015), and #38 (2016).
What do you take away from this? Bastien is an extremely valuable hire with great past experience, from Georgia, to being a key part of the nation’s #1 defense last season (and even more, a part of the C-USA). It should reflect in the development of the linebackers this season. With Hudson, you’re adding 17 years experience as a coach and a proven history as a recruiter. His time at FAU was impressive. And with the system of defense that has been run at WKU since 2017, the unit has seen 10 interceptions (2017), 12 interceptions (2018), 11 interceptions (2019), and a fall to six in 2020. Hudson could very well lead the charge for a defensive backfield that has made a habit of ballhawking in recent years.
Now, we get a chance to look at the offensive unit’s key players.
At quarterback, WKU is expected to start previously mentioned graduate transfer Zappe. Zappe follows Kittley from Houston Baptist, where he dominated. Already, Zappe has been recognized and placed on the 2021 Phil Steele Preseason All-CUSA First Team and 2021 Athlon Sports Preseason All-CUSA Second Team. In 2020, Zappe averaged 458.3 yards per game (the most in the nation) across the four games the Huskies played. He finished the season with 1,833 passing yards, 15 passing touchdowns, and just one interception on a 65.6% (141-of-215) completion percentage. In his time as a Husky between 2017 to 2020, Zappe completed 60.9% (900-of-1,477) of his passes for 10,004 yards, 78 touchdowns, and 39 interceptions. In 2019, Zappe was a Walter Payton Award finalist.
It’s likely that heading the backfield in 2021 will be returning running back Jakairi Moses, following the departure of running back Gaej Walker. Moses rushed for 319 yards on 60 carries, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Splitting the difference with Moses would likely be North Dakota State graduate transfer Adam Cofield. In 2019, Cofield rushed for 830 yards and 12 touchdowns on 167 carries. He also caught 16 passes for 103 yards and one touchdown.
On the receiving end, the Hilltoppers are making a big jump forward. The team will see the return of their leading receiver from 2020, Mitchell Tinsley, who recorded 43 receptions for 377 yards and four receiving touchdowns. Sophomore receiver Dayton Wade will make an impact, too. Wade had 21 receptions for 180 yards in 2020, and was among the top receivers in the nation with the most targets without a dropped pass in 2020 (33). Receiver Craig Burt (23 receptions, 166 yards, two touchdowns) and Dalvin Smith (four receptions, 58 yards, two touchdowns, 14.5 yards per catch)
The offense will also see the return of tight end Joshua Simon, who has been named to the 2021 Athlon Sports Preseason All-CUSA Second Team and 2021 Phil Steele Preseason All-CUSA Third Team. In 2020, Simon hauled in 33 receptions for 370 yards and three touchdowns.
So, where is the big jump in the receiving corps? Upon the transfer of Zappe, and the hiring of Kittley, came the transfer of three other Houston Baptist receivers: graduate Ben Ratzlaff, junior Jerreth Sterns, and freshman Josh Sterns. In 2020, Ratzlaff pulled in 29 receptions for 399 yards and three touchdowns. In 2019, Ratzlaff had a huge season, having hauled in 87 receptions for 1,139 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jerreth Sterns, in 2020, collected 47 receptions for 454 yards and five touchdowns, after coming off of a 2019 campaign where he caught 105 passes for 833 yards and nine touchdowns. Following Jerreth is his younger brother, Josh Sterns. In his lone season at Houston Baptist, Josh managed to pull in 13 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns, finishing with an astounding 31 yards per reception. The Hilltoppers also added tight end Zac Lefebvre, 6’6, 235 pounds, who was named to the 2020 All-MAC Third Team after hauling in 13 receptions for 169 yards and one touchdown for Buffalo.
The offensive line, which was ranked 14th nationally by Pro Football Focus to end the 2020 season, won’t see the return of Jordan Meredith as he joins the Los Angeles Rams, but it will see the return of starting tackles Cole Spencer and Mason Brooks, and guard Gunner Britton, who was named to the All-CUSA Freshman Team in 2019. In 2020, Britton played in 12 games. Filling in the other guard position and center spot is expected to be transfers Cameron Stage and Boe Wilson.
Stage started all five games in 2020 for Bowling Green State, playing all 284 snaps for the Falcons. Stage was a key part of a BGSU offensive line that ranked among the top 50 in the nation in rushing offense, fewest sacks allowed, and yards per completion.
Filling in at guard would be Nebraska graduate transfer Boe Wilson. Wilson started 23 games for Nebraska between 2018 to 2020, appearing in 39 in four seasons at Nebraska, making two starts in 2020, 12 starts at right guard in 2019, and starting nine of 12 games he played in 2018. The offensive line, led by coach Stephen Hamby, should return to its previous form, where it’s unit ranked second in the nation in pass-blocking and 17th in the nation in run-blocking by PFF in 2020.
Overall, expect this offense to make a statement in the Conference USA in it’s first season. All of the pieces seem to be in place, it is just up to the Hilltoppers to execute. With an experienced offensive line in place, a new starter at quarterback that is proven against FBS schools, a revamped receiver room, and an aggressive Air Raid offense being installed, this is a unit that could return to something similar to what it had in 2015.
Next is the Hilltoppers key defensive pieces, and reasonable expectations for the unit.
On the defensive front, we see the return of the 2019 Conference USA Player of the Year, defensive end DeAngelo Malone, who w as also named to the 2020 All-CUSA First Team and 2021 Phil Steele Preseason All-CUSA First Team. Malone, in 11 games last season, pulled in 71 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks on top of two forced fumbles. In 2019, Malone had a career year, racking up 99 tackles (most among defensive linemen in the country), 20.5 tackles for loss, and 11 sacks. Malone is the star of this defensive unit.
Other key parts of this defensive front is defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin, defensive end Juwuan Jones, defensive lineman Michael Pitts, linebacker Will Ignont, linebacker Nicholas Days, and another Nebraska transfer in linebacker Niko Cooper.
Darvin, in 2020, racked up 31 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. He was named to the 2021 Athlon Sports Preseason All-CUSA Fourth Team. Darvin is a staple at defensive tackle, and the sixth-year player could see a big season after setting all career-highs in 2020 in his first year under defensive line coach Kenny Baker.
Jones is due for a breakout season. In 2020, Jones had 38 tackles, five tackles for loss, and two sacks. But in 2019, coming off of a preseason that wasn’t riddled with COVID-19, the defensive end had 55 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and seven sacks.
Pitts, a 6’3, 230 pound graduate transfer defensive lineman from Cincinnati will make a meaningful impact on the Hilltoppers defensive unit this season. In five seasons as a Bearcat, Pitts saw action in 38 games, starting 22, after redshirting the 2016 season. In 2020, Pitts played in just five games, pulling in 10 tackles for 0.5 tackles for loss and one forced fumble. In 2019, Pitts played in 13 games, racking up 30 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and three pass deflections. On Pitts’ 2020 Cincinnati bio, it lists him at 245 pounds. Now? 15 pounds leaner at 230. A bounce back is imminent for the college veteran.
Ignont, named to the 2021 Phil Steele Preseason All-CUSA Third Team, is a transfer linebacker from Tennessee. Ignont played in one game last season for the Hilltoppers due to ineligibility per transfer rules, where he saw three tackles in WKU’s bowl game loss. In 2019 at Tennessee, Ignont played in three games before leaving the Volunteers due to personal issues. In that time, Ignont compiled 16 tackles and one pass deflection. In 2018, as a sophomore, Ignont racked up 47 tackles and two tackles for loss.
Days managed to pull in 27 tackles for the Hilltoppers in 2020 through 11 games played. Days is a speedy, powerful, and long linebacker that was tenth on the team last season in total tackles. With no more Kyle Bailey or Eli Brown, Days will start full-time and with a full off-season with new linebackers coach Bastien, expect Days to break out in 2021.
The other expected impact player is the transfer linebacker from Nebraska, Cooper. The former Husker is listed as a defensive end, but I believe he will see an expanded role and play a lot of snaps at outside linebacker as well. As a sophomore in 2020, Cooper played in each of Nebraska’s seven games, pulling in three tackles. The 6’5, 225 pound Cooper racked up 24 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 2019 for Hutchinson Community College. The Hilltoppers will be sure to use his explosiveness and athleticism to their advantage.
Now, in the defensive backfield, we see the return of star safety Antwon Kincade.
Kincade, a part of the 2020 PFF College All-CUSA Second Team and 2021 Phil Steele Preseason All-CUSA Second Team, racked up 85 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, eight pass deflections, and one forced fumble in 2020. In 2019, Kincade had a huge season, where he ended the season with an 89.8 PFF grade. He had 84 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, and seven pass deflections. He’ll be a huge part of the defense in 2021.
Another key in the defensive backfield will be cornerback Dominique Bradshaw. In 2020, Bradshaw was tied for first on the team with Dionte Ruffin (now with the Chicago Bears) with 10 pass deflections. The 2020 C-USA Honorable Mention finished the season with 17 tackles as well. As the sure-fire starter, expect Bradshaw’s game to pick-up, especially with the addition of the previously mentioned cornerbacks coach, Hudson.
Defensive back Omari Alexander is another big factor in this defensive backfield. In 2020, Alexander finished with 19 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one interception and four pass deflections. He was also a 2020 Burlsworth Trophy Nominee. Alexander is a fiery defensive back that is the mainstay at the nickelback position for the Hilltoppers.
Other key defensive backs that could compete for starting roles or substantial playing time for the Hilltoppers in 2021 will be transfer cornerbacks Tre Shaw (UNC, appeared in 22 games in three seasons) and Davion Williams (Michigan State, appeared in 23 games in three seasons), and freshman safety BJ Wagner, redshirt freshman TJ Springer, and redshirt sophomore cornerback Beanie Bishop (15 tackles, two tackles for loss, four pass deflections in 2020).
Collectively, this is a defense that should finish in top-35 nationally, considering the strength of the offenses they'll be playing. Despite the loss of several key pieces, the additions of coach Bastien, coach Hudson, and several veteran transfers, on top of the return of promising players from 2020, there is still an elite feel to this unit.
So, what should you expect in 2021? We could (and will) write a whole article going game-by-game and throwing in some player expectations, predictions, and stats, but for now, expect the Hilltoppers to come out of 2021 with eight to nine wins and a trip to a bowl game.
Overall, this is a roster and coaching staff making a big push for the future, especially by establishing the culture and setting the tone with veteran transfers. The Hilltoppers signed quarterback Chance McDonald, defensive end Jarett Lucombe, and tight end River Helms for their 2021 class, and added freshman transfer receiver Josh Sterns and redshirt freshman offensive tackle Michael Ondelacy, 6’8, 310 pounds from Tyler Junior College. This is a team steadily building for the future.
The Hilltoppers will take on the UT Martin Skyhawks on September 2nd at home. Be there!