Clayton White has been handed the reins to a defense that has performed at a championship level each of the past two seasons. Under former defensive coordinator Nick Holt, Western Kentucky is also coming off a season in which it had Conference USA’s best scoring defense (24.6 points per game allowed) and rushing defense in 2016 (97.2 yards per game allowed).
The safeties coach from North Carolina State for the past four seasons, White said Monday he understands the expectations for his unit’s performances in 2017.
“Super excited. It’s one of those situations where every offseason coaches get opportunities. When this one came along it was a like a dream come true, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’ve been coaching for 15, 16 years and coaching has been in my blood. It’s my 31st fall of football. I love football. I’m 100 percent football. Family and football.
“Just excited to get going as a defensive coordinator, getting the staff together, just getting on the board and just really coaching these kids up. This is a really good football team. They lost some players, but the program is set. These guys are eager to be coached and I’m eager to coach them.”
White, an NCSU alum, joined the coaching world after three years in National Football League as a linebacker. His career has spanned 15 years around the defensive secondary and special teams.
In 2007 and 2008 he worked with WKU’s first-year head coach Mike Sanford at Stanford. In 2010, the pair were on Willie Taggart’s staff on The Hill.
“(White) is incredibly bright,” Sanford said. “He’s got an infectious personality, but he also has a high standard of which he wants his players to play. I’ve seen that both here at Western Kentucky in 2010 and what he did in developing a young defensive back group, a lot of freshman having to play that year.
“(WKU athletic director) Todd Stewart trusted his eyes (in hiring me), I’ve had the same opportunity with Clayton White. To be on the same staff as him and see how he works and see what kind of family man he is and see what a great father he is and what a great husband. And I’ve also had a chance to see his intellect and how he thinks about football.”
In 2010, White coached former WKU defensive backs Kiante Young, Kareem Peterson, Arius Wright, Tyree Robinson, Derrius Brooks and Ryan Beard – a relatively young group who would go on to help set the standard for WKU football. The Tops haven’t had a losing season since going 2-10 that year.
White has also worked closely with former Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, current Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, current Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and current NCSU defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable. Drawing from those influences will be key in White’s first-ever DC post.
“Obviously this is my first time coordinating so I have something to prove. I’m kinda in the same boat that those young guys are,” White said. “It’s a situation where they do have something to prove, and that’s how you have to take it as a coach. You gotta gain respect from the players and the coaches and the guy beside you so when it is your turn, people can look in your eyes and they can trust what you’re saying.
“And most-importantly, that relationship with that player is built so they can go out and play as hard as he can for you."
The Hilltoppers have plenty of returning production on the defensive side of the ball in ’17. Linebackers T.J. McCollum and Joel Iyiegbuniwe, defensive backs Leverick Johnson, Joe Brown, Juwan Gardner, DeAnde Simmons, Drell Greene, Jason Johnson and Martavius Mims and defensive linemen Tanner Reeves, Chris Johnson, Evan Sayner and Julien Lewis are just a few of familiar names expected back.
Defensive linemen Jaylon George and Carson Jordan recently transferred in from the junior college ranks and safety Marcus Ward has expressed his intentions to rejoin the program as well.
Those players may not be aligned in the 4-3 base Holt employed. White will use a system that best suits his Hilltoppers.
“I always said, whenever I do get the opportunity – because I have transitioned to schools – and you go in there with this scheme, and then you see the players and it’s not gonna fit,” he said. “Everywhere I’ve been it has been four-down. There’s four-down fronts with three linebackers, there’s 4-2-5’s, and there’s also 3-4.
“But philosophy-wise and defense-wise, it’s definitely gonna be a four-down front, and whether that’s 4-3 or 4-2-5 or a lot of mixed different fronts to keep guys off balance – you never want people to know what you’re doing defensively. But definitely that’s gonna be the foundation. It starts up front, No. 1.”
Western Kentucky, the two-time defending CUSA champions, finished 12th, fifth and second, respectively, in total defense in each of its first three seasons in the league. Sanford wants to keep that trend going upward and has employed White to do it.
“I want this defense to be the best in the Conference USA,” Sanford said. “That’s where we’re gonna work toward, and that’s where we’re headed, and I think we have the young talent to make that a reality.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop