BISHOP | What to expect out of the 2018 Hilltoppers

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Thursday’s practice at Houchens-Smith Stadium was not one to brag about.

Second-year coach Mike Sanford took his team swimming Tuesday. Then he gave them the day off Wednesday to prepare for said Thursday – the first day Western Kentucky had to hone in on No. 4 Wisconsin.

And the Hilltoppers did not bring their best effort on that day.

“That’s natural, it happens every year,” he told the media this weekend. “Just some times as a head coach I have to channel my aggression, my anger toward that transition just because it’s gonna happen inevitably.”

Sanford’s words (he went on explain effort is usually an issue when high school stars are now suddenly on the scout team) to us were more tempered than the ones he gave his squad shortly after practice ended Thursday.

Was this a significant moment? Not particularly. Coaches attempt to light fires whenever the opportunities present themselves.

But what I did wonder about was how many of those young men on a knee that day took that speech to heart? It certainly had to be a higher percentage than those in uniform listening to similar speeches 12 months ago.

We’ve theorized much during the offseason about the undocumented, unsubstantiated possibility that Sanford’s new regime was met with less than 100 percent enthusiasm in 2017. The former Boise State quarterback and Notre Dame offensive coordinator came to town and changed a lot of the way things had been done – so for some upperclassmen in the locker room the refrain might have been, “Why are we doing things this way when we were doing things that way and WINNING?!”

But anyone who may have not seen eye-to-eye with Sanford has exited stage right at this point. I would surmise that all those left wearing the WKU red and white are fully invested in what Sanford and his staff are selling. After all, 54 players on the roster are sophomores, redshirt-freshmen or true freshmen.

I can truthfully say to you (I have seen it with mine own eyes!) that Sanford is working with a team that is now undoubtedly all-in.

“I think just knowing the roster, knowing the culture that existed before and the culture that we wanted to instill going forward,” Sanford said on the difference between Year Two vs. Year One. “Drawing on some of the great stuff that had been achieved and been accomplished here and why – why was that? You don’t really know that until you have a chance to be around the players and around the culture of the locker room, so you wanna pull and extrapolate from that first year and then pepper that in to what we’re doing going forward and finding good things.”

The narrative for WKU football here is two-fold: Because of Western’s changing of the guard from Jeff Brohm to Mike Sanford, the restructuring (not a rebuild) is in its second phase – and there will continue to be growing pains. The byproduct of that restructuring is a tremendous influx of talent, albeit youthful and inexperienced talent.

That concoction equates to cautious optimism.

“This team excites me,” Sanford said. “It’s exciting to be a part of. We have an incredibly exciting and talented, youthful team, many of which got repetitions last year in games. We’re gonna return a lot of players that are young that have tasted what it’s like to be out there on Saturdays. Now it’s time to grow and go from good to great for some of those young players.”

I’ve been asked a lot this summer about how I think the Hilltoppers will be this season. I’ve tried to be honest with my assessment. I think they’ll struggle to get to five wins and be lucky to find a sixth in keeping their bowl-eligibility streak alive.

Does that mean WKU will be a bad football team? No. On the contrary I foresee a team that is in nearly every game and plays right down to the wire, but one that doesn’t have enough overall depth and experience to get over the hump in close losses.

Throw me into the group of those who think Western takes a step back in 2018 before taking a major step forward in 2019. Not that Sanford and Co. need our assessment.

“I think the players on this team, the coaching staff, we feel pretty confident about what we have on this field in this team,” he said. “We don’t have the depth, we don’t have the experience on the offensive side of the ball. I feel like we do have the depth and experience on the offensive side of the ball.

“So I do think – yeah, we’re laying in the weeds. We’re all collectively kind of tired of the prognosticators. We just wanna go play football and let the chips fall where they may and control what we can control – and that’s our effort, that’s our execution. But it’s a fun group to be around and it’s group that I think is poised for something special for this year and year’s to come.”

What I do think you’ll find enjoyable in 2018 is the play of Western Kentucky’s defense. Under the direction of second-year defensive coordinator Clayton White, the Tops have all the pieces to be one of the best units in Conference USA should they remain healthy.

There’s a four-man rotation at safety – all of whom are good enough to be a starter each and every week. The addition of Eli Brown provides serious play-making depth at linebacker. Nickelback Ta’Corian Darden is a year older and will be even better yet again. The secondary, led by DeAndre Farris, is deeper and faster and quicker.

Then, up front, guys like Carson Jordan, Jeremy Darvin, DeAngelo Malone and Juwuan Jones are just a few of many positioned to have breakout years.

What about the offense you ask? Well, that’s the big mystery and ultimately the catalyst to the success (or lack thereof) of this year’s Western team, in my estimation.

The second year of the Sanford Offense should be more aptly termed the first year (if 2017 was Year Zero). Sanford will be the primary play caller, he’ll have a veteran quarterback more suited to run the ball, he has some lightning-fast freshman running backs who will get the ball if they can prove to be reliable, and a cupboard full of wide receivers with varying skill sets.

Up front is the concern. No seniors on the offensive line, a new center, a few true freshman in the mix to, not only start, but play a lot – and just 15 linemen on the roster on opening week.

That group will get a lot of the blame if things turn south this year – and just praise if the Tops begin to surprise folks.

“I think it definitely fuels us,” WKU freshman lineman Gunner Britton said of those who speak negatively about his position mates. “The people saying that, you wanna prove everyone wrong. It just puts a bigger chip on our shoulder.”

For many of you, Western Kentucky football is a disappointment given its meteoric rise a couple years ago and its grounding by the end of '17, and I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m not here to try to change your mind or blow some fake positive smoke about how your Hilltoppers will shock the world this season.

Some of you have already written the team and the coach off anyway – like the man who stopped me at the bank Friday and told me Sanford was, “too young” and WKU football was, “going backward.” He also seemed to think I was still employed by the local newspaper so that gives you an insight into his credibility.

Western Kentucky and athletic director Todd Stewart made a calculated risk when it turned to Sanford. Hire a Brohm disciple to attain assumed immediate success or go a different route by honing in on someone who had a plan to build for the future?

Obviously it was the second of those two options WKU rolled with. So at this point you’re either with ‘em or against ‘em. And if you’re like me your curiosity will be heightened all season to witness which way the Western trajectory goes and if that calculated risk was the right one to make.

As for Sanford and the boys, well they’re going to go out and play 12 football games starting with Friday’s trip to No. 4 Wisconsin. The young coach simply hopes through those 12 games everyone throughout the organization is all-in, for better or for worse.

“The theme for this year is it’s all about us. It’s about we, and developing that cohesiveness to the fact that no matter what happens, the good times, the bad times – the unbelievably good times – that we stay tight,” Sanford said. “We put our own ambitions aside for the greater good of the overall organization.

“The great thing about that is what you achieve at a high level as a unit, as a group, as a team and everybody’s believing in one another and everybody’s sacrificing for one another, everyone gets the share of the successes. The spoils of success are shared among 150 people in the organization. That’s what we wanna do. Just establishing that we over me culture. I think that will help us in the pursuit of those five big goals.”

PREDICTION SURE TO BE WRONG

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Tops. Badgers. ESPN. Friday. Madison.

Wisconsin opened as 33-point favorites in May and since has held steady at +35 1/2. Some may think that’s too large a spread. I think it’s probably about right.

I’m drinking the Badgers’ Kool-Aid, which means I’m taking UW 48-10.

We’ve talked about Wiscy’s offensive line – one of the best in the nation – all summer. And Heisman Trophy hopeful Jonathan Taylor. And veteran quarterback Alex Hornibrook.

But what we haven’t spoken about much is Wisconsin’s defense. It was one of the best units in all of college football last season. And Western’s offense? Well, um, we know how they limped to the finish line in 2017.

So that’s not a good matchup for the ol’ Tops. And that will equate to a long night in the land of milk and brew.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Western Kentucky defensive lineman Jeremy Darvin on whether or not he’ll participate with the Wisconsin crowd during the playing of Jump Around at Camp Randall Stadium: “I’m not gonna lie. I love that song, so I’m gonna be doing a little jumping myself. I’m fired up. We ready for it.”

MUSICAL PICK OF THE WEEK

If you happen to be in Lexington any time soon, check out Tee Dee Young at Tee Dee’s Lounge:

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop