(📸: Joseph Barkoff, Bowling Green Daily News)
The Hilltoppers are going to enter the fall coming off of a very strong offseason.
The team found itself adding an astounding 17 players from the transfer portal, most notably starting quarterback Bailey Zappe, offensive lineman Cameron Stage, defensive end Michael Pitts, tight end Zac Lefebvre, running back Adam Cofield, and wide receivers Ben Ratzlaff, Josh and Jerreth Sterns.
Zappe, coming from Houston Baptist (FCS), has already been named to the 2021 Phil Steele Preseason All-CUSA First Team and 2021 Athlon Sports Preseason All-CUSA Second Team. He was also voted 2020 Southland Fall Player of the Year. At Houston Baptist in 2020, the Huskies only played four games due to the novel COVID-19 pandemic. But, HBU's Air Raid offense found success, with Zappe completing 65.6% (141/215) of his passes for 1,833 yards, 15 touchdowns, and just one interception. Zappe averaged 458.3 yards per game, which was the top of the nation in the FCS and FBS in 2020. Against Louisiana Tech, Zappe completed 63.8% of his passes (37/58) for 406 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. He has the experience slinging it on C-USA teams, having had an equally as impressive performance against North Texas in their first game.
Stage comes from Bowling Green State, where he started all five of their 2020 games. He was a key part of the Falcons offensive line unit that ranked among the top-50 in the nation in rushing offense, fewest sacks allowed, yards per completion, and least turnovers lost.
Pitts was a defensive end at Cincinnati from 2016-19. He saw little play in 2020, but in 2019, he saw action in 13 games, starting eight of them. He compiled 30 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2019. In 2020, Pitts appeared in five games, totalling 10 tackles.
Lefebvre, a 6'6, 240lb tight end from Buffalo, is big addition to WKU's offense. Named All-MAC Third Team, Lefebvre started all seven games for Buffalo in 2020. The former Bull pulled in 13 catches for 169 yards and a touchdown. In 2019, Lefebvre recorded 235 yards and two touchdowns on 21 receptions in 11 games started.
Cofield is another addition from an FCS school, where the running back spent 2016-2020 at North Dakota State, winning three FCS National Championships (2016, 2018, 2019) while he was there. In 11 starts through 16 games in 2019, Cofield carried the ball 167 times for 813 yards and 12 touchdowns, while also tabbing 103 yards and a touchdown through the air. The former Bison should be a big addition to the offensive backfield.
Coming with Zappe to the Hilltop were his top three receivers at Houston Baptist: Ratzlaff, and brothers Josh and Jerreth Sterns. Ratzlaff pulled in 29 receptions for 399 yards and two touchdowns in 2020, after coming off of a 2019 season where he recorded 87 receptions for 1,139 yards and 12 touchdowns. Josh Sterns, who was a freshman in 2020, recorded 13 receptions for 403 yards and four touchdowns for the Huskies. And finally, Jerreth Sterns. In 2020, Jerreth managed to pull in 47 receptions for 454 yards and five touchdowns. Over the course of 27 career games as a Huskie, Jerreth has 220 receptions for 1,971 yards and 18 touchdowns.
But what other changes happened on the Hilltop this offseason? A big one, and one of the most instrumental to the programs offensive future, was the hiring of offensive coordinator Zach Kittley.
Kittley comes from- stop me if you've heard this one before- Houston Baptist. Kittley's offense in 2020 ranked #2 in the FCS through four games, putting up 2,190 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 547.5 offensive yards per game, and 6.8 yards per play. In 2019, his offense ranked second in the Southland Conference and 12th nationally with 426.6 yards per game. His quarterback, Zappe, led the nation in completions and attempts per game, ranked second in passing yards per game, and led the nation in touchdown passes with 35.
Prior to Houston Baptist, Kittley spent three seasons as a graduate offensive assistant and assistant quarterbacks coach under Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech.
WKU also promoted Maurice Crum to defensive coordinator this offseason, after he spent 2017-20 as the linebackers coach, adding co-defensive coordinator as a title in 2020. In 2020, the Hilltoppers defense ranked #40 nationally. The defense also ranked eighth in passing yards allowed (177.3), 28th in total offensive yards allowed (348.7), and 41st in points allowed per game (25.3).
The Hill won't see defensive back Devon Key (NFL Draft), linebacker Kyle Bailey (transfer to EKU), Eli Brown (graduate), defensive back Trae Meadows (NFL Draft), defensive back Roger Cray (transfer portal), defensive back Dionte Ruffin (NFL Draft), and linebacker Damon Lowe (transfer to Louisville) back on the defense.
But, WKU did see multiple defensive players get included on the Phil Steele All-CUSA teams, including defensive end Deangelo Malone (First Team), safety Antwon Kincade (Second Team), and linebacker Will Ignont (Fourth Team).
On top of that, the defense will see the return of star defensive linemen Ricky Barber, Juwuan Jones, and Jeremy Darvin, defensive backs AJ Brathwaite and Omari Alexander. Add to this additions of players from the transfer portal, being: Michael Allen (DE, Wake Forest), Davion Williams (CB, Michigan State), Niko Cooper (linebacker, Nebraska), Matthew Flint (LB, UNC), Tre Shaw (CB, UNC), and the previously mentioned defensive end, Pitts, from Cincinnati.
Additionally, WKU introduced Keynodo Hudson as the new cornerbacks coach, Carlos Locklyn as the new running backs coach, and promoted Stephen Hamby to take over the offensive line: a unit that ranked #14 in the nation (#2 in pass blocking) by PFF College.
WKU will kickoff the season on Thursday, September 2nd at home against UT Martin at 7pm.