Having an abundance of freshmen on the roster is normal for Western Kentucky – the Hilltoppers have had at least 38 rookies on the roster every year since 2010.
What may be a change of pace for WKU, however, is the production expected out of those with an “F” or “RS-F” next to their names in the program. There were 41 such players when fall camp opened Saturday and a few more will be added when walk-ons arrive this month.
Some came to the program highly touted and highly recruited, while others flew under the prospect radar. They’ve all been on campus throughout the summer, and first-year head coach Jeff Brohm praised their efforts to this point.
“We felt like we had a good recruiting class when we signed it in February and felt good about the guys,” Brohm said. “A lot of them we knew very well – got to see them in camp, got to know them very well, got to know their coaches well, got over to their schools a lot, got to be around them quite a bit more than normal.
“In the summer they’ve been very good. Probably exceeded our expectations. We think we have some very good speed – which is hard to get – guys that can really run. When we timed our guys in early July, there were some very good times – better than some of our starters.”
Some speedsters turning heads on the offensive side in fall camp have been running backs D’Andre Ferby and Joe Brown and wide receivers Kylen Towner and Nacarius Fant. Fant is the reigning Mr. Football in Kentucky, Ferby is the reigning Division II-AA Mr. Football from Tennessee, Brown was a second team all-state selection at Butler High School in Louisville and Towner – a redshirt-freshman – was an honorable mention all-state selection while at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Mobile, Ala.
Ferby, who rushed for 194 yards and three scores during The Ensworth School’s 27-26 win at Trinity in Louisville in August 2013, said the freshman class agreed upon a common goal after arriving on campus.
“During the summer workouts, we all said the goal was to move on up and up the depth chart,” Ferby said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do now.”
On defense, linebackers Daeshawn Bertram (redshirt freshman from Trinity) and Joel Iyiegbuniwe (true freshman from South Warren), safety Juwan Gardner (redshirt-freshman from DuPont Manual) and defensive linemen Tanner Reeves (redshirt-freshman from Jenkins High School in Florida) and Julein Lewis (true freshman from Bob Jones High School in Alabama) have all stood out.
For their defensive teammate Marcus Ward, a sophomore safety who played in seven games as a true freshman last year, the influx of youth has been exciting to see.
“We have a bunch of new guys stepping up,” he said. “It’s about starting our own legacy, making sure we put the work in throughout the whole time of camp and making sure we become a cohesive unit.
“People are so used to seeing these other guys that did great things here, but they’ve moved on and so you now you get to see some new guys step up and play the game.”
With youth comes concern.
The paradox of WKU’s youth movement is that the only way to get rookies playing time is to throw them into the fire of the regular season. Doing that could jeopardize the outcome.
And the Tops don’t have any time to play around in the early going with defending Mid-American Conference champions Bowling Green, Big Ten program Illinois, arch rival Middle Tennessee and a proven Navy squad as the first four games on the slate.
“These guys have come in and taken on the roles of making sure that they learn the system, they play within the system, they play above and beyond their potential,” WKU senior cornerback Cam Thomas said. “I believe that every guy that came in, whether it be a freshman, sophomore or junior, has came in – even if they haven’t played – has come in and taken on that role and definitely honed their skills and have become better players.”
The Hilltoppers open the season three weeks from today with a 6:30 p.m. kickoff against BGSU at Houchens-Smith Stadium. That doesn’t give Brohm and his staff much time to get rookies up to speed.
How many of them will be ready to go by week one remains to be seen, but Brohm said he’s optimistic a good number will be a part of the future of WKU football.
“They’re young, they need to add some strength, some experience, get to know the offense, try to get a feel for college football and the speed of the game,” he said. “But we definitely like their athleticism and their speed and we think they’re all very good kids as well. They’ve done a great job of doing things the right way, they’ve done a good job of going to the classroom and taking care of business there. And they’ve done a very good job off the field as well, so we like the character of them also and think they’ll end up being very good players for us.”
MTSU game time set
WKU’s game Sept. 13 against Middle Tennessee will have a 6 p.m. kickoff, MTSU announced Thursday. The game will be televised locally in Tennessee on MyNashville 30.
Middle Tennessee’s EMC Productions will produce the game.
The Blue Raiders and Hilltoppers will renew their rivalry following a year off due to different conference affiliation. Middle Tennessee owns a 33-29-1 advantage over WKU and have won four of the last five meetings.