Mike Sanford and his offensive assistants spent the entire offseason looking to resuscitate Western Kentucky’s beleaguered rushing attack.
The sand in the hourglass has run out. The plan going into Week One of the 2018 season includes a new offensive line coach, a virtually new offensive line, a five-pronged running back attack, more designed runs for the quarterback and a redesigned scheme.
“To the average yeoman, to the average fan, (the running game) might look similar (to 2017). I don’t know. It depends on how everything kind of plays itself out,” Sanford said Monday. “In terms of the schemes, I should say, it might look similar. In terms of, to a football coach, to the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin who’s been preparing based on 2017 film, there’s gonna be a lot of stuff that they’re gonna have to work through in terms of variety that they didn’t have on tape from 2017.”
Western had one of the worst rushing seasons in program history last year. Some of that was due to 348 yards being lost on sacks, but still, the team went without a single rush of at least 20 yards and the foursome of D’Andre Ferby, Marquez Trigg, Jakairi Moses (currently out with an injury) and Quinton Baker (now playing for Portland State) totaled just 1,041 yards combined.
Trigg is listed as the starter for Friday’s game at No. 4 Wisconsin at 8 p.m. on ESPN. But Sanford said Ferby, redshirt-freshman Joshua Samual and true freshmen Garland LaFrance and Gino Appleberry will all get carries in the opener as well.
“You talk about how do you improve your run game? Well, first and foremost you get better players. You continue to elevate the level of your roster,” Sanford said. “As a result of elevating the level of our roster, that position, with Josh Samuel, Garland LaFrance and Gino Appleberry, it’s made Marquez Trigg and D’Andre Ferby more complete backs, more hungry backs, running with better pad level, worrying about getting everything about their body in position to be explosive and dynamic – and they’ve done that.
“I think that those other three young backs have all earned opportunities to play against Wisconsin. That’s gonna happen.”
The plan to deploy five backs won’t remain intact for 12 weeks – at least if things go the way Sanford hopes. While Trigg and Ferby have combined to carry the ball 404 times for nearly 1,500 yards, neither are guaranteed to be the workhorse Sanford wants to have by season’s end.
Samuel (5-11, 205), LaFrance (5-10, 175) or Appleberry (5-9, 210) are primed to become the featured back if they so choose to take the job.
“We’ve had opportunities in scrimmages to see who’s gonna run the best. That was gonna declare the starter. I’ll be honest all five of ‘em have done really good things,” Sanford said. “We’ve run the ball very effectively. I think it’s made our defense fit the run even better because we have more variety to what we do and we have different types of backs that I think compliment the schemes really well.
“I’d like for there to be a back that takes the lion’s share of the reps. But in reality we have an embarrassment of riches if we can get this thing rolling up front with them in their tracks. I really do believe that that’s a possibility this year.”
A quintet of running backs is all fine and well, but if they don’t have holes to run through what good are they?
Western Kentucky has a completely new looking offensive line with sophomore Cole Spencer at left tackle, redshirt-sophomore Tyler Witt at left guard, redshirt-sophomore Seth Joest at center, redshirt-sophomore Jordan Meredith at left guard and redshirt-junior Miles Pate at left tackle. They’ve all looked to first-year WKU offensive line coach TJ Woods to lead them into battle this week and beyond.
“We can’t be a space-blocking unit, we can’t be a position-blocking unit, we’ve got to move people. We know that,” Sanford said. “All five of those guys meet that criteria of five guys that wanna move another man against their will.
“Now, let’s be honest, there isn’t one starter across that group that started in that position last season. So it’s got to be some time to work through that, but the work that they’ve put in gives me a lot of room for excitement and gives this team, more importantly, a lot of confidence in how that they approach the game of football. And the fact that they are gonna be a cohesive unit for at least this year and beyond to next year, quite a few of them will be starting potentially for three or four more years.”
A bit of an added wildcard to the discussion is the role of the quarterback. Redshirt-senior Drew Eckels, a pocket passer by nature, has the ability to tuck the ball and run more so than his predecessor Mike White.
And Western will also dial up an unspecified number of QB runs for Eckels (or whomever is under center) each game. Sanford said going into Friday that WKU will have a “pitch count” of designed quarterback runs as part of the ground attack.
No matter what the Hilltoppers pull out of the playbook Friday they’re likely to find running the ball extremely difficult against the Badgers. Wisconsin allowed just 98.4 rushing yards per game last season – only Alabama and Michigan State surrendered fewer on average.
Western, meanwhile, averaged 25 yards per game rushing in its last five games of 2017.
• Eckels is one of two fifth-year seniors to be named starting quarterback at an FBS program going into the 2018 season, the other being Taylor Cornelius at Oklahoma State.
• Wisconsin, ranked No. 4 by The Associated Press, will be the highest-ranked team WKU has faced in a season opener since playing at No. 5 Florida in 2007.
• Western is 0-7 against the current membership of the Big Ten Conference.
• The Hilltoppers are 59-33-66 all-time in season openers but 4-16 in their last 20 season openers on the road.
• Wisconsin has won 22 straight home openers, the second longest active streak in the nation.
• The Badgers have won 39 straight nonconference home games.
• Junior Alex Hornibrook is 20-3 as UW’s starting quarterback and the Badgers have averaged 31.4 points per game in those 23 games.
• Wisconsin last lost a nonconference home game Sept. 13, 2003 (UNLV).
• Nonconference opponents have averaged 7.8 points per game in the last 13 games against UW at Camp Randall Stadium.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop