BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Over two decades ago, Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton made his first college start at quarterback for Houston at Legion Field.
On Saturday, it was his player’s turn to make his first start in the same stadium in Birmingham.
Kevaris Thomas took over starting quarterback duties in place of Tyrrell Pigrome in WKU’s 37-14 loss to UAB, and the redshirt sophomore showed that he was capable of handling the role, but still inexperienced.
“I did think that early in the game that he did show that he’s very capable of making plays and moving the football,” Helton said. “Now what we’ve got to do is keep building off of that with him and we’ve got to help him – I’ve got to help him as a coach, try to get him in the right place – and then he’s got to help us when things aren’t good (by) taking care of the football.
“That’s a young, green quarterback that’s playing out there, and it’s about what you would expect from a young, green quarterback. He had flashes, he did some good things, and then he did some things that weren’t very good. We’ll go back to the drawing board, fix it and try to get better.”
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt sophomore entered last week’s 38-14 loss to Marshall at Houchens-Smith Stadium in the third quarter with WKU trailing 35-0 and having only 91 yards of offense. Thomas finished with 148 yards and a touchdown on 9-of-18 passing, and added 30 yards rushing on seven carries, including a scoring run after connecting with Xavier Lane on WKU’s longest play of the season – a 51-yard pass.
Pigrome had improved through his first three starts, even earning C-USA Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance in WKU’s only win this season at Middle Tennessee, but the offense hadn’t been producing, and Pigrome turned the ball over multiple times against the Thundering Herd.
WKU entered this week’s games with the 10th-ranked scoring offense of the 12 teams in C-USA that have played and 67th of 76 FBS teams in points per game (19.8), and were 12th in the league and 73 nationally in total offense (289.8). Pigrome had also been battling turf toe, according to Helton.
That led to Thomas being named starter for the first time in his college career, after a successful prep career at Lakeland High School in Lakeland, Fla., where he was rated a four-star prospect and became the highest-rated recruit ever to sign with the Hilltoppers. He appeared in only one game last season, completing a 6-yard pass to quarterback Ty Storey on a trick play, and was used mainly in short-yardage situations in the three games he appeared in during his freshman season.
“I found out a couple days after the last game, and I just told myself I’ve got to prepare and be ready – be ready for anything that comes at me and know how to take it down,” Thomas said.
Helton said Monday on his weekly radio show that his first start came at Legion Field against Alabama. Houston lost 42-17 to the Crimson Tide to open the 1997 season, and the now-WKU head coach threw for 129 yards and a touchdown on 5-of-9 passing, splitting time with Jason McKinley. Helton had 2 yards on 2-of-4 passing in the Cougars’ 37-10 loss to Alabama at Legion Field two years later.
Helton said the staff does a lot to try to motivate Thomas, and that he didn’t seem nervous when talking to him leading up to kickoff.
“He told me just to stay calm because it’s my first game, don’t get shaken up and he told me to fight for him,” Thomas said.
Thomas threw for 162 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-35 passing, but had two interceptions. He also had a fumble late in the second quarter that UAB turned into seven points and a 24-14 lead by halftime. His evaluation of his performance?
“Not good enough.”
The first half showed signs of things moving in a positive direction – of his total stats, 130 yards and both touchdowns came in the first two quarters. He completed 11-of-20 passes during that time. Thomas engineered an eight-play, 85-yard drive capped off with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell Tinsley, and a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard pass to tight end Josh Simon in the end zone.
But WKU’s offense struggled in the second half, gathering only 16 yards in the third quarter and failing to pick up a first down. The Hilltoppers had 48 yards in the fourth quarter.
Thomas, while showing his mobility late in last week’s loss to Marshall, had 1 yard net rushing. He gained 31 yards, but was sacked five times Saturday.
“Again, he’s green,” Helton said. “There’s times out there where you’re going to watch him and say “C’mon buddy, step up in that pocket,’ and those kind of things, but that’s what you get from a guy that hasn’t had a lot of experience.
“I thought that he was excited and handled it well and he was pretty normal the whole time, even when things weren’t going good. He was good. We’ve got a lot to try to build off of and hopefully we can do that.”
Thomas said he wants to do a better job with reads, throws, being more relaxed in the pocket and making better decisions.
“We’re going to watch film, evaluate, find our mistakes, find what we did good and put them together and figure out how we can do better next week,” Thomas said.
So, will Thomas remain the starter?
“For now, yes,” Helton said.
The Hilltoppers’ next game is scheduled for Saturday at 3 p.m. at Houchens-Smith Stadium against UT Chattanooga.
“I feel like where we’re at with Piggy – a little bit of that turf toe – and I felt like KT did some nice things that we wanted to try to do,” Helton said. “It’s competition every time. That doesn’t mean it lasts forever, but I do want to try to build off of some of the things that he did.”