Defense wins championships.
The old adage that holds true for all sports is the same one that WKU football coach Willie Taggart and defensive coordinator Lance Guidry are instilling in their squad.
Many factors contributed to the football program’s turnaround in 2011, including an enormous offensive output from All-American running back Bobby Rainey. But perhaps the biggest difference between last year’s Hilltoppers and the 2009-2010 teams, was the vastly improved WKU defense.
Guidry and his defense made their presence known from the get-go, limiting Southeastern Conference member and in-state foe Kentucky to under 100 yards rushing and passing in the 2011 opener. Despite losing the game 14-3, the defense established itself as the calling card of the Hilltoppers.
WKU was the Sun Belt Conference’s top-ranked rushing defense in 2011, limiting opponents to under 100 yards rushing on seven different occasions. Guidry was pleased the development of his unit, but not satisfied.
“You look at last year’s defense and we made improvements in a lot of areas, especially on third down, sacks and interceptions,” said Guidry. “But we still gave up too many big plays. We’re trying to get everyone to the football.”
An “all hats to the ball” approach has been the hallmark for Guidry’s bracket defensive scheme. And while there were unfilled gaps here and some big plays there, the first year in Guidry’s defense was very successful. Seven Hilltoppers found the ball carrier 40 times or more in 2011, highlighted by first team All-Sun Belt Conference middle linebacker Andrew Jackson’s 109 tackles.
It will be Jackson and preseason All-Sun Belt defensive end Quanterus Smith leading the 2012 defense, which returns eight starters.
“Quanterus (Smith) and Andrew (Jackson) are really talented guys,” said Guidry. “When you’re good on defense it’s because you’ve got some guys that can play. We’ve got some guys who are really, really good and have a chance to play at the next level.”
The depth of the defense and the experience in Guidry’s scheme is expected to pay high dividends for the Hilltoppers. Senior defense lineman Kenny Martin said so far, so good.
“This is the hardest I’ve seen our defense work in a long time,” said Martin. “Everything is moving so fast, even in individual drills. This is what it takes to be a Top 10 defense.”
The speed of the defensive front resulted in 27 sacks a year ago, and looks to be formidable again. Smith recorded a team high 7.5 sacks last season, while fellow defensive lineman Jamarcus Allen added 39 tackles. The seniors will anchor the talented defensive unit.
“We finally have a defense coordinator that’s been here for two years straight, so the defense is second nature to us now,” said Allen. “We want to be the No. 1 defense in the Sun Belt.”
With the depth at defensive line, the hard-hitting Jackson at middle linebacker and the experience of the secondary, WKU certainly has the makeup of a top-ranked defense. The secondary returns senior safety Kareem Peterson, junior cornerbacks Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright and a handful of youngsters with game-experience.
Sophomore safety Jonathan Dowling is also expected to make significant contributions. The 6-foot-4 ball-hawk was a high school Under Armour All-American in 2010, and he has WKU defensive backs coach Alonzo Hampton excited about the potential of his secondary.
“We have four guys back there and an extra four that can come off the bench and be just as good,” said Hampton. “Our goals are very high. We’re not just trying to be the best secondary in the Sun Belt, we’re trying to be one of the best secondaries in the country.”
If statistical trends hold, it could be another highly successful year for Guidry’s unit. During the first year in his scheme, the Hilltopper defense cut 50 total touchdowns in 2010 down to 38 in 2011. No area saw as significant of an improvement as the run defense, which surrendered over 500 fewer yards and 16 less touchdowns on the ground. Guidry preached turnovers in 2011, and WKU jumped from six interceptions in 2010 to 13 in 2011.
But Taggart and the coaching staff are adamant about 2012 being a new year, noting that this year’s squad hasn’t accomplished anything just yet. To accomplish their goals of a Sun Belt Championship and a bowl appearance, the Hilltopper defense will once again have to deliver on a high level.
Allen understands WKU has to take care of business and meet expectations, and he’s going to make sure the Hilltoppers do just that in his final season.
“This year everything has to be fast tempo,” said Allen. “We can’t start slow and play catch up.
“We know how good we can be. This is my last year, so from here on out this is the last thing I can do for the WKU football program.”