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Western Kentucky football coach Tyson Helton discusses the upcoming season and the start of football camp during WKU’s football media day Tuesday in the Jack and Jackie Harbaugh Club at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

The 2021 preseason is set to begin at Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers held football media day Tuesday at Houchens-Smith Stadium and were then preparing for player meetings later in the day before opening practices Wednesday.

It marks the third fall camp under head coach Tyson Helton – although last year’s was anything but normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic – and he’s hoping competition in coming weeks will help prepare his team for the regular season, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 2.

“I think you start with fall camp and the competitive piece,” Helton said. “We’ve got to get back in the swing of things. Our team has got to be in football shape. I think our strength coaches have done a fantastic job over the summer of getting our guys ready to go in the fall camp. Now we’ve got to get into football shape, you’ve got to get the pads on.

“The competition piece is really, really important. We’ve got an older football team. I feel in all three phases we’re pretty strong, so we need to go out there and see us compete against each other.”

The start of last fall was filled with COVID-19 testing, masking and tremendous amounts of uncertainty of if a college football season could even be played without shutting down. This year, while remaining cautious, WKU is preparing for a more normal fall.

“I think we’re trending back to as normal as possible. I think our administration has done a fantastic job all the way up to this point of making sure we followed the protocols, we did what we need to do, but now it’s time to try to get back to normal,” Helton said. “We’ll be cautious about what we do. You never know, you can’t predict the future, but you’ve always got to be cautious to make sure you’re doing things the right way. We’ll make sure we’re following the protocols that are in place.

“Really excited for the opportunities to get back to normalcy, get back to regular-season games, have fans in the stands. It feels pretty normal around here right now.”

The Hilltoppers went 9-4 and won the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl in Helton’s first season as head coach and went 5-7 with a loss to Georgia State in the LendingTree Bowl last season.

The offense struggled in 2020, but the Hilltoppers have brought in new offensive coordinator Zach Kittley from Houston Baptist to hope turn things around. They also brought in several transfers, including HBU transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe, who Helton announced Tuesday would be the starter entering the fall.

“Just really excited to get back to ball,” Kittley said Tuesday. “I think we had a really good spring kind of installing a new system. A lot of new faces around here, for sure. We really had a strong summer we felt like, so anytime we can get back between the white lines – coaches, players all together – it’s an exciting time and we’re just really excited for the season.”

Kittley is hoping to cut down “self-inflicted wounds” – like turnovers, dropped balls and penalties – during the fall, while kicking up the level of competition among an offense that brought in several Division I transfers as part of the 2021 signing class.

“I feel like we’ve done a good job of bringing in a lot of really talented players, I feel like we’re really deep at a lot of different position and just really making sure every day we’re creating that competition,” Kittley said. “We’ve got a couple guys here who are veterans that have kind of secured their starting spots, but we’ve got a whole lot of others on the roster that we’re still battling to see who’s going to be the starter come UT Martin game.”

Defense has shouldered much of the load in Helton’s first two seasons as head coach, and with plenty of talent returning – including DeAngelo Malone, the 2019 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year and the preseason selection to win the award again this year – expectations are high for that group entering the fall.

Like the offense, it’ll be under the direction of a new coach.

Maurice Crum was elevated to defensive coordinator after Clayton White left to take the defensive coordinator job at South Carolina. Crum had served in other defensive assistant roles at WKU since 2017, including as co-defensive coordinator last season, so the transition has been smooth. Crum is happy with the work his unit put in during the offseason – including in the spring game, where it had four interceptions and two pick sixes.

“First and foremost, excited to be here. Fired up. It seems like it’s taken forever to get here and now we’re here and ready to go,” Crum said. “I think the guys have done an awesome job attacking all spring, being competitive all summer and now it’s time for us to put that attack and compete together and go play some football.”

WKU has just over four weeks of fall camp to prepare for the regular season, which is scheduled to begin at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Sept. 2 against UT Martin. Helton says, from there, the Hilltoppers will take it one game at a time through a nonconference schedule that also features Army, Indiana and Michigan State, before opening C-USA play Oct. 9 against UTSA.

“By the end of fall camp we need to come out healthy, we need to be hitting on all cylinders and so when you go into game one, you’re ready to go get that win and then we just take it one game at a time from there,” Helton said.{&end}

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