The major concern for the Western Kentucky football team coming into the 2014 season is, in one word, defense.
The Hilltoppers lost their top five tacklers from a season ago (Xavius Boyd, Andrew Jackson, Jonathan Dowling, Arius Wright and Tyree Robinson), 468 total tackles from the 2013 roster and 61.7 percent of tackles from the Sun Belt’s top-ranked defense (339.2 yards per game allowed) – and 14th-best defense nationally – in 2013.
“We didn’t get invited to a bowl game, so we missed all those practice opportunities,” WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. “Golly, that’s not good for a team that was losing so many seniors, especially on defense, as we couldn’t get some of those extra practices in for our young guys.
“Our coaches, we’re on a mission. We’ve got to get a lot better here. Obviously lost some key guys, but that’s just the way college football is. You lose guys and you’ve got to get guys ready to play. Our young guys have got to step up. We have a lot of young guys that need to get a lot of reps.”
There are holes to fill at every level.
Up front, Bar’ee Boyd (40 tackles) and Calvin Washington (30 tackles – three for loss) are gone. At linebacker, all three starters – Boyd, Jackson and Chuck Franks – have left vacancies. That trio combined for 220 stops, 28 tackles for loss and 91/2 sacks.
In the secondary, junior safety Dowling (three interceptions, seven pass breakups, 67 tackles) left early for a shot at professional football, and senior cornerback Arius Wright (55 tackles, 81/2 tackles for loss, three sacks and a pick) and senior safety Robinson (42 tackles, four interceptions) each exhausted their eligibility.
The top two tacklers returning for WKU are defensive end Gavin Rocker, a redshirt junior, recording 37 stops – 51/2 for loss – and two sacks in 2013. Senior cornerback Cam Thomas, who will miss spring practice to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, led the Tops with five interceptions last year.
“I mean, obviously, we have some new guys stepping up, so they’re going to need a lot of work and they’re going to need to develop and everything,” Rocker said. “But I have faith in everybody that’s stepping in and making a major impact this season.”
The Hilltoppers aren’t without options on defense, but those options are just inexperienced. Defensive lineman Bryan Shorter, a redshirt junior, played in six games in 2013 and sophomore safety Marcus Ward played in seven before both were lost to injury.
Redshirt sophomore Devante Terrell and senior T.J. Smith each played at least 11 games on the defensive line alongside Rocker. Junior Daqual Randall played seven games at linebacker while senior Terran Williams played 12 games at linebacker.
In the secondary, converted wide receiver Rico Brown, a redshirt senior, played all 12 games as a DB in 2013. Prince Charles Iworah saw action in all 12 as well, but he’ll see limited action this spring while he competes with the WKU track and field team.
“I think we got the players to fill those positions that we lost,” Brown said. “With the coaching staff that we have and the gameplan that we have, they set a standard. We have the players that can reach that standard.
“There’s definitely a chip on our shoulder. Players come out and work our tails off. We’re just trying to get better every day.”