Ready for some football again? You have no choice.
A preview of the Mike Sanford era gets underway around 4 p.m. Thursday when the first-year coach trots his Hilltoppers into Houchens-Smith Stadium to begin spring practice. There will be plenty of areas to keep an eye on for the two-time defending Conference USA champions – and for a program on its fourth coach in six seasons.
Let’s take a gander at what should peak your interest over the next few weeks:
How will Sanford and Co. conduct each day’s two-hour sessions on Feix Field. Lively? Spirited? Subdued, yet focused? Every practice is completely open to the public (side note: you should count your blessings for that tradition – fans of other programs are not so fortunate), so you can see for yourself the type of vibe emulating from inside The Houch.
One can’t draw too many concrete conclusions about whether or not the Tops have bought in (or are buying into their new coach) simply by watching a few spring practices. But the level of competitiveness and performance from now until April 22 could be a indicator of things to come in September.
For better or for worse.
I haven’t been told whether Leon Allen will fully participate in spring practice or not, but I do know that the once-great running back is inching closer by the day to a return to the playing field.
And what a major boost that would be to WKU’s chances at a three-peat.
Allen missed all of 2016 and the final 12 games of 2015 after a brutal knee injury suffered Sept. 10, 2015 that nearly ended his career. He’s been training behind the scenes ever since, rehabbing from surgeries, staying afloat academically and holding on to his dream of playing football again one day.
It’s not likely Allen will have the same level of explosiveness he had going into his senior year in 2015. Many thought he had the chance to be WKU’s highest NFL Draft pick in a long, long time. But any form of Leon Allen is better than no Leon Allen for the Tops – and certainly better for the young man’s sake.
WAKING UP THE WIDEOUTS
It may be a long while before Western Kentucky sees a duo like Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris at wide receiver again. Shoot, WKU may never have a pair like that.
Those two young men have graduated and moved on to a career in professional football. And that leaves WKU with a ton of production to replace – Taylor and Norris caught 56 percent of Western’s passes in 2016 and totaled nearly 65 percent of the team’s receiving yards.
The cupboard is not bare, by any means, just unproven. Nacarius Fant (who suffered a late-season ACL tear) and Kylen Towner (a kickoff return specialist) are the two elder statesmen of the group – but whom will step forward to provide depth in the passing game?
I happened to speak with quarterback Mike White this offseason and even he was curious to see which wideouts would rise to the challenge – Will Bush? Lucky Jackson? Quin Jernighan? Xavier Lane?
The next few weeks could provide some clues to answering that question.
WHO CAN PROVIDE HELP AT LINEBACKER?
Western had, arguably, one of the the best trios at linebacker in Conference USA in 2016. And even with the departure of Keith Brown to graduation, that unit was expected to be just a stout in 2017 – but then T.J. McCollum graduated and opted to spend his final season at Purdue with Jeff Brohm and Nick Holt.
That leaves Joel Iyiegbuniwe as the main cog in the machine on the second level of the WKU defense. Outside of that there is serious concern.
On the current roster, Western Kentucky has zero – count ‘em – zero senior linebackers. How will new defensive coordinator Clayton White mask that issue in the spring to create confidence in the fall?
A new-look line
Perhaps the biggest worry for a WKU fan should lie along the offensive front. But a closer examination should ease your mind.
Yes, Forrest Lamp, Max Halpin and Darrell Williams all graduated, but there are still plenty of talented (and large) young men ready to step in and fill that void.
Perhaps more importantly, the next few weeks will help White and his front five begin to build that all-important bond and trust necessary for success. And upper-classmen Matt Nord, Dennis Edwards, Brandon Ray and Jimmie Sims are still around to anchor what should remain a solid WKU offensive line.
Quote of the week
Now former Western Kentucky’s women’s basketball player Kendall Noble on her career: “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wasn’t highly-recruited when I came out of high school, but WKU was the perfect fit for me and it all worked out. I thank God he brought me into coach (Michelle Clark-) Heard’s life. She just pushed me and made me into the player I am today.”
Musical pick of the week
Paying respects to Mr. Chuck Barry:
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop