Small group of WKU seniors looking to make their mark

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There are only 10 of them. And in actuality, only seven have been here the whole time.

Western Kentucky’s senior class is one of the smallest in the nation in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But it’s a group that has mostly been a part of 37 wins, four bowl games, three bowl victories and two conference championships since many of them arrived in the fall of 2014.

“Honestly, it’s surreal, man,” running back D’Andre Ferby said. “I’m still looking around, looking for (former WKU running back) ‘Ace’ Wales, (former WKU quarterback) Brandon Doughty – it’s just crazy that I’m the old man in the group now.

“Just me being a senior, I played on those teams that won the back-to-back conference championships, so I know what it takes to lead a team. I’ve got all the intangibles along with the other nine guys who are seniors on this team. I know what it takes to be a great team so that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Ferby, quarterback Drew Eckels, cornerback DeAndre Farris, defensive linemen Julien Lewis and Evan Sayner and linebackers Der’Quione Mobley and Masai Whyte are the team’s six redshirt-seniors. Safety Drell Greene is a true senior, running back Marcellis Logan began his career at Benedict College, tight end Mik’Quan Deane transferred from Northeast Oklahoma A&M and kicker Ryan Nuss transferred from East Tennessee State.

Every single one of them will play a vital role in the successes during Western’s 12 regular-season games this year.

“The 10 seniors that are here have been through a lot,” WKU’s second-year coach Mike Sanford said. “The 10 seniors that are here are bought-in to this program, they’re bought-in to this university and they are wholeheartedly sold out to win a conference championship to achieve our goals. That’s a great feeling. And knowing them better than I did last year, that makes a big difference.

“The other byproduct of that is we’re gonna have a lot of returning players in ’19 and ’20. But the 10 seniors in 2018, I got a lot of respect for these guys. And they’re a fun group guys to go to war with.”

Western Kentucky’s six redshirt-seniors watched the better part of the 2014 season unfold in an unfortunate way. The Hilltoppers lost five of their first eight and were left for dead after a 59-10 drubbing at Louisiana Tech.

But WKU didn’t lose again until Sept. 19 of the next year and went on a 28-5 run that included three straight bowl wins and back-to-back league titles.

Then their coach, Jeff Brohm, left in the winter of 2016. Many of their teammates graduated, transferred or were dismissed. Their position coaches sought other employers. Long-time staff members and familiar faces moved on.

The excitement of a new coaching staff and new era of WKU football under Sanford wore off by November of 2017 while the Tops lost five of their final six. And even during the most recent offseason would-be seniors Dennis Edwards and Jake Collins decided to finish their careers with Big Ten Conference programs.

The final year for those who call themselves WKU seniors will be different than any of the years that have preceded them.

“WKU was my first collegiate offer back when I really wasn’t known about. They were my first offer and they believed in me before anybody else did,” Ferby said when asked why he chose to finish his career in red and white. “For me, I’m a big man on loyalty, and I’m gonna stay loyal to WKU through all the highs and lows and I’m here now and I’m excited for my senior year.”

The 10 Western seniors are each going through the traditional phase of trying to comes to terms with their careers being over. Few of them will get the opportunity to play at the next level which adds even extra significance to the games that lie ahead.

They’ve also spoken about the realization that their leadership efforts hold more weight given such a young locker room.

“It’s honestly pretty crazy because when I got here, 17 years old, I was still feeling like, ‘Wow, this is never gonna end.’ A couple years go by and you’re like ‘Wow, thinking back I was just in their shoes,’ ” Eckels said. “All these incoming freshmen I’m trying to tell ‘em all these things that I learned when I first came here. So it kinda feels weird because I know I’m not really old, but I feel like I’m an old soul. That’s kinda weird, but it’s kinda fun at the same time.”

According to the WKU football communications staff, only Illinois (8) and Ball State and Southern Methodist (nine each) have fewer seniors on their rosters than WKU. But none of those programs have had the success the Hilltoppers have enjoyed in recent seasons.

Those successes, as well some of the struggles, created a tight bond between the 10 Tops with “Sr.” next to their names, Ferby said. It also gives them confidence they have what it takes to return Western Kentucky to prominence.

“We know what we have in this facility. We know what kind of talent we have," Ferby said. "It’s a show-me world and last year we did not show what we were capable of. The best thing about it is we get another chance. We get a restart button. I believe a lot of us, especially us seniors, we see what we have here and we’re excited to show Conference USA and the rest of the country that WKU is still here.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop