Tyson Helton didn’t think Western Kentucky’s 2019 football season would be one of rebuilding. He just didn’t believe in that.
“It’s hard to walk into a room of 95 men and say we’re going to try to rebuild,” he said after the Hilltoppers’ 23-20 win over Western Michigan in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl.
That game capped off a turnaround 9-4 season – Helton’s first at the helm – in which the program tripled its win total from the year prior and matched its total number of combined victories from the 2017 and 2018 seasons under the previous coaching regime.
Since then, it’s been an offseason filled with unknowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, but with an experienced team now partially returned to campus for voluntary workouts and the rest expected back in July, there’s early excitement and expectations for another successful fall for WKU.
“You never know what’s going to happen in a season, but like anything, our guys are excited. The goal is always to try to win a championship and we’ll see what happens,” the second-year WKU head coach said Thursday. “It was good to get nine wins. That season’s over and now we’ve got to try to even top that and try to win a championship.”
Sixty-five Hilltoppers returned to campus June 8 in the first phase of the COVID-19 athletic restart plan. The remaining group is scheduled to be back July 6.
Those that have returned include a mix of “older guys, kind of our two-deep guys,” as well as those that came in the spring and only had a couple of weeks worth of work before shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Helton.
The focus for the first two weeks has been on his players’ normal lifting and running routines in groups of 10 or fewer. The team isn’t allowing any competition against each other at this point, but Helton has been impressed by the hunger he’s seen from those returning from last year’s squad in player-led workouts.
“That’s been going great,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Jeremy Darvin said Thursday. “I think another thing that helps is we have a lot of seniority on the team, so that helps out a lot. A lot of mature guys, guys with experience, and then we also I feel like this year we felt like, rolling off of last year, we really feel like we’re a great team, so we want to compete.
“Just talking about it is just not enough. We have to actually go out and work. We’ve got a lot of new guys and a lot of old guys just ready to work.”
WKU’s returning talent was on display last week with a dozen players receiving Preseason All-Conference USA honors from Athlon Sports. The Hilltoppers are expected to return 16 of their 22 offensive and defensive starters, along with two of their three specialists.
Helton credits Clayton White’s defense for carrying much of the load last season. White returns as defensive coordinator – Helton retained all but two of his assistant coaches from last year’s team --- with 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.
The defense allowed the fewest points per game in C-USA last season at 20.1 per game and was second 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.
Senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone is coming off a year in which he anchored WKU’s defense and was named the conference Defensive Player of the Year. Malone was a preseason First Team selection, while linebacker Kyle Bailey and safety Antwon Kincade were Second Team selections, defensive end Juwuan Jones was a Third Team selection and safety Devon Key was a Fourth Team selection.
While there is a plethora of talent returning offensively as well – including linemen Jordan Meredith, Cole Spencer and Seth Joest, tight end Joshua Simon, running back Gaej Walker and receiver Jahcour Pearson, who were all named to preseason all-conference teams – the biggest question mark surrounds the quarterback position.
The team entered camp last year in a competition that was eventually won by Steven Duncan, who suffered a season-ending injury against Louisville in the third game of the season. Ty Storey, a graduate transfer from Arkansas, replaced him and helped the Hilltoppers finish the year 8-2. Duncan transferred to Tarleton State University in the offseason.
“Really, our defense is what carried us and offensively I thought we progressed as the season went on and kind of found our groove and it really comes down to the quarterback – how does your quarterback play?” Helton said. “You’ve got to play good team football. If we’re playing really good defense again, the quarterback is playing really well, I think we’ve got all the pieces there for some good success.”
The likely frontrunner to take over the position is Tyrrell Pigrome, a graduate transfer from Maryland who started seven games for the Terrapins over four years. The 5-foot-10, 209-pound quarterback started three games last year, throwing for 719 yards on a 58.5 percent completion rate with three touchdowns while rushing for 153 yards and another two scores. He appeared in 34 games over his career, mostly for packages as a dual-threat quarterback. He redshirted the 2017 season after an injury in the Terrapins’ season-opening win at then-No. 23 Texas.
“He fits pretty well in our current scheme,” Helton said. “Our offensive system is really built on who the quarterback is and what their skill trait is. If we’ve got a really good passer, but he’s more of a pocket guy, we build it around that. If you can say, ‘Pick your ideal quarterback,’ the obvious answer is a guy that can do both – a guy that’s a really good thrower, a really good runner, a guy that can create. We feel like he has the ability to do that.”
Pigrome automatically brings the most experience to WKU’s quarterback room that includes redshirt junior Davis Shanley, redshirt sophomore Kevaris Thomas and incoming freshmen Darius Ocean and Grady Robison. Of those four, only Shanley has legitimate quarterback playing time in his sporadic starts and appearances during the 2018 season.
The NCAA’s Division I Council on Wednesday approved a six-week practice plan for college football that begins in July, transitioning teams from voluntary workouts like those taking place now at WKU into the typical fall camps, where Helton is expecting the quarterback competition to bring out the best in everybody before the Sept. 3 opener at Houchens-Smith Stadium against UT Chattanooga.
“There’ll be some good competition out there come summer,” he said. “ ... but competition brings out the best in everybody, so we’ll see what happens when they hit the field in August.”