WKU Spring Game: White 28-21 over Red

Western Kentucky defensive coordinator Clayton White calls out instructions during the spring game April 13 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

When Clayton White arrived at Western Kentucky prior to the 2017 season, he wanted people to know about the Hilltoppers’ defense.

The team’s offense had been prominent under Jeff Brohm, who left for Purdue following the 2016 season, and with now-head coach Tyson Helton coordinating it during the 2015 season, when WKU finished the year ranked in the AP top 25.

Last year, WKU’s Conference USA-best scoring defense helped carry the team in a turnaround 9-4 season in which it tripled its win total from the year prior, and expectations are high again in year four with White as defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach.

“One thing I will say is one of my first things I told the team at WKU is that one day they’re going to talk about WKU’s defense instead of other things. We wanted to make sure WKU became a school that was respected for how we play defense on Saturday,” White said in the latest episode of WKU’s Beyond the Hill podcast, which was released Monday. “The expectations have been high for our guys from the day we got here. I think the main thing is you’ve got to keep those expectations high.

“There’s always – as coach Helton will say – there’s more ways you can take the next step. That’s been the focus this offseason, is really trying to find ways for each individual, each coach – myself included – just to take more steps so we can win our division, win our side.”

The 2015 team averaged 44.3 points and allowed 25.9 points per game. In 2016, WKU averaged 45.5 points per game and allowed 24.6 points per game. In 2017, WKU’s opponents averaged 26.8 points per game and in 2018 opponents averaged 27.8 points per game.

In 2019, WKU allowed just 20.1 per game – the program’s best mark since 2004 – and was second among C-USA programs in total defense to UAB, surrendering just 335.5 yards per game. Entering bowl season, WKU was ranked in the top 20 in the FBS in opponent first downs passing, opponent third down conversions, opponent red zone chances, opponent completion percentage, red zone defense, red zone TD defense, opponent total plays and opponent first downs.

White, a two-time Frank Broyles Award nominee as the nation’s top assistant coach, said he’s “pretty sure I’ve never been on a team that’s brought back this many guys.” The Hilltoppers return nine starters from last year’s defense, including reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Malone. That list also includes linebacker Kyle Bailey and safety Antwon Kincade, who were named Preseason All-Conference USA second-team selections from Athlon Sports, defensive end Juwuan Jones, who was a third-team selection, and safety Devon Key, who was a fourth-team selection.

“The good thing about this group is it’s been a great group to coach. Those guys love football more than anybody I’ve ever been around as a group,” White said on the podcast, where he also discussed the Black Lives Matter movement and inspiration from NBA legends Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. “From top to bottom, everybody loves the process of football, not just Saturdays. They love the process, which is very important.”

In addition to those returning on the field, WKU brings back the majority of its assistants. White received a salary increase from $250,008 to $295,008 annually after a re-allocation of funds. In total, six assistants were listed among 17 WKU employees to receive salary raises according to a May budget proposal. No new funds from the state budget were used for the six increases. {span style=”text-decoration: underline;”}The university is implementing tiered salary reductions to address $2.4 million in budget cuts, and under the plan for the 2020-21 fiscal year, those making more than $148,000 annually would take a 10 percent cut.{/span}

WKU announced Kenny Baker as the new defensive ends coach in February to replace Jimmy Lindsey in that role. Helton spoke on a previous episode of the podcast and called White and offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis “future head coaches.” With that expectation, Maurice Crum – who has served as linebackers coach – and Ryan Aplin were named co-defensive and co-offensive coordinators, respectively, in the offseason to potentially groom them to fill those roles if White or Ellis were to leave. WKU also returns Andy LaRussa as special teams coordinator/safeties coach, Kenny Martin as defensive tackles coach and Ahmad Smith as a defensive graduate assistant.

“We collaborate just as good as anyone I’ve ever collaborated with,” White said on the podcast. “ ... Having the continuity is the best thing that we could possibly have done for our staff and our team, more importantly. We have our coaches back and we have most of our players back. It could be a good recipe if we can get all the ingredients together.”

WKU brought 65 members of the team back to campus for voluntary workouts June 8 as part of the university’s COVID-19 athletic restart plan, and the remainder returned Monday, along with the women’s soccer and volleyball teams. As of Tuesday, no returning athletes had exhibited symptoms. The school’s restart plan did not include testing for asymptomatic student-athletes, and only those with symptoms would have a test performed, unless the student-athlete requested a test to be administered.

WKU is scheduled to host UT Chattanooga to open the season Sept. 3.

“It’s a brand new year. Each year is different,” White said on the podcast. “People know who we are a little bit more, so we won’t be the sneaky defense in the conference or whatever. People will know that we will be a defense to be reckoned with.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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