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WKU FOOTBALL

PICK YOUR POISON: Malone, Jones providing leadership on Tops' defense

Western Kentucky’s opponents will certainly be aware of DeAngelo Malone when they take the field.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior defensive end returns after receiving Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2019, and he was picked as the preseason favorite by coaches to win the award again.

But if the focus is solely on Malone, the Hilltoppers believe there’s another player across the field to wreak havoc on offenses in Juwuan Jones.

“I think DeAngelo and Juwuan feed off of each other very well. You’ve got to pick your poison,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said Aug. 17 after the team’s first practice. “If you’re going to run over to DeAngelo’s side, that’s one problem you’ve got, then you’ve got the other issue on the other side.”

Jones, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive end, received All-Conference USA honorable mention honors two years ago following his redshirt freshman season, where he set a program FBS-era record with five sacks as a freshman. He had 42 total tackles and forced a fumble, and he was also named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team and named a Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-American.

This fall, he feels like he’s got something to prove.

Jones didn’t receive any postseason accolades last year after recording 55 tackles, including 12.5 for a loss, seven sacks and nine quarterback hurries.

“I feel a little underrated,” Jones said Aug. 17. “I felt like I had a better year last year than my redshirt year, and I was an honorable mention my redshirt freshman year, but last year I didn’t get anything and I had better stats than a lot of D-ends in our conference. I felt kind of disrespected about that, so this year I’ve got something to prove.”

Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith joined Malone as a defensive end with first team All-Conference USA honors in 2019, while Old Dominion’s Keion White and UAB’s Jordan Smith were named to the second team. Highsmith had 75 total tackles and led the league with 14 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. White had 64 tackles and 19 tackles for a loss, but wasn’t in the top 20 in the league in sacks, and Smith, while not in the top 50 in the league in tackles, made his presence felt with 10 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Highsmith was a redshirt senior and Old Dominion isn’t playing football this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Smith is back as a redshirt junior and had one tackle and a quarterback hurry in UAB’s season-opening win over Central Arkansas.

Ten other defensive ends across the league were selected as honorable mentions, but Jones wasn’t among those on the list. It’s out of his hands, however, and entering the season Jones is focused on the things he can control.

“Personally, it’s to always do my job every play. That’s something you can control,” Jones said. “ ... Obviously if I do my job, I give great effort, the stats and accolades will come.”

In 2019, Malone had 99 total tackles – including 21 for loss – with 11.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown. The Atlanta native set the WKU FBS-era record in tackles for loss, while becoming only the fourth defender in Hilltopper history with double-digit quarterback takedowns. His 99 total tackles were the third-most by an FBS defensive lineman in a single season over the past decade.

Malone enters the season as one of only three conference Defensive Players of the Year that was expected to return this fall out of the 10 FBS leagues, and was also named to the Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch lists, but he isn’t focused on the accolades.

“No pressure at all,” Malone said Aug. 21. “I’m just coming out here and getting better every day even though I’m getting highly praised, but I just keep that work ethic up.”

WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White said Malone had a really good year against the run and pass, and says he can always improve when he’s asked to be in coverage, as a speed rusher and understanding where the help is.

“He’s really good at all those things I just said, so he’s going to continue to find his weaknesses and make them his strengths,” White said.

WKU believes having Jones opposite Malone forces teams to make difficult decisions. White said Malone wants to be moved around some, and that he’ll be all over the field, but that he’s really excited about the opportunities having two strong defensive ends opens up for his defensive tackles.

WKU defeats Army 17-8

Western Kentucky defensive lineman DeAngelo Malone (right) tackles Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. during WKU’s 17-8 win on Saturday at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

White said both Jones and Malone are in great condition, but noticed an increased emphasis on the mental side that’s trickled down to the younger players. Now entering his fourth year as WKU’s defensive coordinator, White has his team paying attention to the details more than ever before.

“I went down to (defensive ends) coach (Kenny) Baker’s office today to hit him up on some notes and I walk in there and I bump into those two big boys watching tape during their free time,” White said Aug. 21. “Sometimes, the way the offices are set up, you don’t get to see which guys are out doing the extra film, but it was good to see that and I think that’s part of who they are.

“They’ve become good leaders. A lot of young guys that are coming into our defense, they’re starting to look up to those guys just as students of the game. I think that’s the part where they both want to continue striving.”

And while one is returning with C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Year honors and the other returns feeling somewhat disrespected, the two share the same goal entering the 2020 season.

“My personal goal is just to win it,” Malone said. “Win it all.”{&end}

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

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