WKU leaning on freshmen Samuel, Appleberry out of the backfield

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A key component to the youth movement for Western Kentucky’s offense has been the play of a pair of running backs improving each week during their respective rookie seasons.

Josh Samuel and Gino Appleberry are now the top two rushers for WKU heading into Saturday’s game against Florida International (5-2, 3-0 Conference USA) at 6:30 p.m. at Houchens-Smith Stadium. And both are freshmen.

“We’re progressing each play, going play by play we’re trying to get better as a team each week out,” Samuel said of Western’s first seven games of the year and of the first seven games of his career. “We had a great practice (Tuesday), hopefully we can go into (this) home (game) and get a ‘W’.”

Still searching for his first 100-yard game of his career, Samuel, who redshirted in 2017, rushed for 87 yards on 15 carries last week during the 37-34 loss to Old Dominion. A month prior he racked up 93 yards on 18 totes during a win at Ball State.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound graduate of Central Gwinnett High School in metro Atlanta now leads the Hilltoppers (1-6, 0-3 CUSA) with 320 rushing yards. And his 5.1 yards per carry is seventh in Conference USA among backs with at least 60 carries.

“Last game was a good chance to get the amount of carries,” Samuel said. “Me and (Appleberry) we did really good – great performances by both of us. We have a great group of backs in the backfield and I don’t wanna take all the credit because we all have a great group of backs. We all just do our thing when we get in.”

Appleberry (5-9, 210) now leads WKU in rushing touchdowns with a modest three. He scored twice last week, included what appeared to be the game-winner, a two-yard run with 1:37 to go that gave the Tops a seven-point lead.

Out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, Appleberry was hampered by a foot and ankle injury as a senior in 2017. He’s worked his way into Western’s rotation by furiously studying the playbook over the summer and putting in the hours alone after practice to hone his craft.

Tuesday at Houchens-Smith Stadium, Appleberry was the last Hilltopper to leave the field.

“Pretty much over the summer I was just trying to get into the playbook. We only had two classes during the summer so I just focused on learning the plays more than anything,” Appleberry said of his progression. “Freshman year, it was shaky, but I’m just getting used to classes, passing classes, having two-hour classes and trying to pass and balance it out with football. Just been going with the flow.”

Appleberry rushed for 80 yards on 18 carries last week, by far his best output in the first seven games of his young career. Western needs him and Samuel to continue to put together quality outings like that to have any chance of picking up its second win of the year Saturday.

But regardless of what happens over the next five weeks it’s becoming apparent WKU has a duo to lean on for years to come.

“We just wanna win,” Appleberry said. “It’s a team game so we all just doing what we have to do to win.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop