CUSA Media Day Football

Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton talks with reporters during Conference USA college football media day Thursday in Frisco, Texas.

FRISCO, Texas – Lucky Jackson sat in the same position a year ago – representing Western Kentucky at Conference USA’s annual kickoff event trying to sell excitement for the upcoming season.

Not that Jackson wasn’t excited last year, but coaching change also brings an identity shift and the redshirt senior has been around long enough to see two regimes and sense a difference.

“It’s just a completely different vibe,” Jackson told the Daily News on Thursday. “I think all the guys feel good about playing with coach (Tyson) Helton because some of the older guys like me and Quin Jernighan can validate for him and let the players know he has our best interest and he has the right route we want to go.”

That’s the message Jackson, Helton and defensive back Devon Key sold on the final day of the C-USA Kickoff event at The Star. In his return to WKU, Helton is just over a month away from his head coaching debut on Aug. 29 against Central Arkansas. He was hired in December just days following the firing of Mike Sanford, who went 3-9 in his second season for the Hilltoppers’ worst record since 2010.

Jackson was a redshirt freshman who watched Helton work as WKU’s offensive coordinator in a record-breaking season that had the Hilltoppers averaging 44.3 points and 526.4 yards per game. The Lexington native had a taste of that in 2016 in former coach Jeff Brohm’s final season, but Helton was gone and starting a two-year job with his brother Clay at Southern California.

Since Helton returned, he’s nailed down the team’s identity as having the same downfield threats that brought the program its biggest stretch of success during his first stay.

“It fires me up,” Jackson said. “Knowing he was the brains behind that encourages me and gives me a lot of comfort. … Knowing who we are and our identity is really the biggest thing. We’re two completely different teams, but we’re capable of the same thing. Just knowing the standard is there and working toward that, we’ll find it even for us.”

The Hilltoppers are predicted to finish fifth in the C-USA East Division in the Preseason Media Poll after finishing last in the division in 2018. Players understand that reality and expectations have to be addressed head-on.

“I think coach Helton is a great coach and what he has to offer is tremendous,” Key said. “Going into the season and fall camp, summer workouts have been great.”

Helton added the extra initiative players have taken in player-run-practices has been clear and motivating to he and his staff. The Hilltoppers will officially open fall camp July 31.

“I really like where our team’s at right now,” Helton said. “They’ve worked extremely hard and our strength and conditioning coaches have done a great job. Our players have done a great job with PRPs and those guys have been organized and done some really good things there. There’s great excitement in the building right now and we’re close to getting started.”

Jackson is one of 10 returning starters on offense. Only Mik’Quan Deane, who was the starting tight end and the second-leading receiver behind Jackson, must be replaced due to graduation. Because of that continuity, Jackson believes Helton’s first unit can make noise from the jump.

“I feel like there’s a sense of urgency not just because of that but because of that bad taste from last year,” Jackson said. “Guys want to get after it and show that we’re capable of doing it.”{&end}

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Covering the Western Kentucky University athletics beat for the Bowling Green Daily News.

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