2022 G5 Preview: Western Kentucky Is Betting On Transfers (Again)
Western Kentucky found a conference title in the transfer portal a season ago. It thinks it can do it again this year – albeit with a bit more subtlety.
This is part of the C-USA Preview, the second conference in the Outside Zone’s Group of Five season preview package. Check out the preview landing page for all previous stories. All previews and the entire Outside Zone archive are available for only $5 a month or $50 a year.
Western Kentucky’s staff identified a structural problem with their roster in 2020.
One year removed from a major year-one leap – from 3-9 in 2018 under Mike Sanford to 9-4 in 2019 – to open the Tyson Helton era, the Hilltoppers were slipping. They finished the 2020 campaign with five wins to seven losses as they struggled to piece together a capable offense. That’s not necessarily a rarity at this level. A new staff and a slight talent bump can make for big jumps early in a coach’s tenure because the talent gaps are much tighter in G5 leagues, just as a big first year can lead to a quick rebuild in year two as that talent washes out of the program.
That was the structural issue, though – Western Kentucky’s rebuild was slated for 2021, not 2020. The Hilltoppers were set to lose nearly 30 seniors from the 2020 team. The rebuild arrived a year early.
Unsure of their ability to withstand back-to-back down seasons and concerned about a serious gap in leadership on a roster with essentially an entire class missing from Sanford’s lame-duck final season, Western Kentucky needed an outside-the-box solution.
In passing legislation that allowed for one free transfer, in tandem with the offering of a free year of eligibility for all athletes who had seasons impacted by COVID, the NCAA gave WKU its solution.
Suddenly, the Hilltoppers could use the transfer portal to essentially synthesize a new senior class without damaging the development of the young players on the roster, because those players would be granted what was essentially a free redshirt season. They could fill their gap without any worries of oversaturating the roster and losing a large portion of the young, still developing core that Helton and his staff had built on the trail in the 2019 and 2020 classes.
“In a normal year, the downside to taking a class full of transfers is that you would cut into the development of your roster and the balance of it in terms of what scholarship numbers you have per class,” WKU general manager Zach Grant told the Bowling Green Daily News.
“Say, for example, the NCAA didn’t have that retaining eligibility deal and our freshmen last year became sophomores and we took all transfers – we’d have a class with zero freshmen, and you just can’t do that because in four years you’ll have a class with zero seniors. But once we found out eligibility would be retained and we started to get a feel for which guys on our roster would come back, we knew that this was the year that we could solve both problems – we could fill the middle of the roster and we could also not cut into the balance of numbers on our rosters – so we’re sitting in a pretty good spot now because we have almost even numbers of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen.”
Obviously, given Western Kentucky’s berth in the C-USA title game, that strategy worked out. The Hilltoppers all but dragged and dropped the Houston Baptist offense into their own roster, grabbing quarterback Bailey Zappe, wide receiver Jerreth Sterns (and a few others) and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley for the quickest air raid installation of all time. Zappe shattered records and threw for nearly 6,000 yards, and both he and Sterns will be drafted come April. Kittley jumped for the same position at Texas Tech, and Grant is off to Ohio State.
Still, WKU’s plan was unequivocally a success. It avoided a rebuild, established a new offensive identity that Helton seems keen on maintaining given his hires this offseason, and earned quite a bit of national attention for the way that it went about it.
But now, with the classes on the roster a bit more stabilized – albeit less than WKU might have hoped, given some early departures and transfers out of the program – the Hilltoppers are turning their one-year experiment into a (slightly less aggressive) full-on program building strategy. They hit the portal hard again this offseason, pulling in 10 players from other schools (either FBS, FCS or JUCO) who look likely to fill in for departing players.
For Helton, there seems to be a full-scale ideology shift at play.
“At the major Power Five schools, you might be recruiting a guy and when he’s a freshman or sophomore, he’s been on your campus. For us, you might see him late in his sophomore year, but really it’s not until his junior year that you’re really getting to work with that guy,” Helton said.
“I’m certainly OK with taking a couple of those (high school) guys, but I always kind of tell myself, ‘If I’m going to guess wrong, how do I want to be wrong?’ Well, I want to be wrong watching film on somebody who’s played at the college level, where I can pick up the phone, talk to somebody I know and I can get an honest opinion about that person.”
The 2022 WKU class wasn’t quite as heavily slanted toward transfers – it did land 13 high schoolers as opposed to four in 2021 – but the takeaway internally from the 2021 season seems to be pretty clear: Western Kentucky is content building around the portal, especially in the spots transfers thrived a season ago.
Like at quarterback. Zappe is gone, but WKU is hoping that former West Virginia and Bowling Green signal-caller Jarret Doege can pick up right where he left off, plugging into an offense closer to the kind he ran in high school, and the kind that he originally signed on with Bowling Green to run.
Whether he can handle the kind of volume that Zappe operated with in 2021 is an open question – although it doesn’t seem entirely fair to expect 62 TDs and nearly 6,000 yards out of anyone – but he has at least proven himself a capable starter across the last five (!!!) seasons. He was 272-of-417 passing for 3,048 yards, 19 TDs and 12 INTs in 2021, which is right around where he’s been for his entire career. If he’s ever going to break out of that, it’ll be within this offense.
The Hilltoppers have secured replacements at wide receiver too, as Sterns departs for the league and No. 2 wideout (I say No. 2, he still had 87 receptions and 1,402 yards) Mitchell Tinsley transfers to Penn State. Akron’s Michael Mathison is the presumed replacement for the former as a smaller, quicker possession guy (56 receptions, 706 yards, 3 TDs in 2021) while Western Michigan’s Jaylen Hall (46 receptions, 752 yards, 3 TDs in 2021) takes over for Tinsley as the big body on the outside.
Malachi Corley (73 receptions, 691 yards, 7 TDs) and Daewood Davis (43 receptions, 762 yards, 8 TDs) return as well to round out the four-man starting receiver corps, which should still be the C-USA’s best despite its losses.
The rest of the offensive departures – four major contributors, three on the line, one at halfback in Adam Cofield – will be replaced with internal promotions, although the Hilltoppers did grab South Carolina guard Vincent Murphy to take over one of the vacancies up front, likely in what used to be Boe Wilson’s right guard spot before he graduated.
Among the returning names to know, Kye Robichaux and Noah Whittington can be all but penciled in as halfbacks after serving as the two best ball carriers on the team last season, while Gunner Britton, Wes Dorsey, Mark Goode and Michael Ondelacy will battle for the open spots bookending the offensive line as 2021 tackle starters Mason Brooks and Cole Spencer both hit the portal.
On the other side of the ball, WKU seems a bit less interested in talent infusions. This was a young defense that improved as the season went on in 2021, and a decent chunk of that unit is returning. The Hilltoppers did grab Desmyn Baker from Rice to compete for a linebacker spot, Upton Stout from North Texas to take over at nickel back, Rome Weber from Wyoming to battle at safety and a pair of tackles from the lower levels in Dareon Goodrum and Lorenzo Hernandez, but for the most part, they seem content to let it ride here.
Leading the charge up front is Juwuan Jones, who will need to make a star turn to help fill in for first-team all-conference defensive end DeAngelo Malone, who is headed to the NFL. Jones was fine last season – 45 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks – but has been a starter for basically five seasons now and has yet to truly star. If he’s going to, now is the time. If he can’t, former three-star running back JaQues Evans might be the man to step up after filling in as a very good reserve a season ago. Niko Cooper, a 2021 Nebraska transfer, and multi-year contributor Marcus Bragg return on the ends as well.
Those tackle transfers don’t look especially likely to start but could jump right into the two-deep behind returning starter Darius Shipp and former North Alabama standout Broderic Martin, who looked very good in his first season with the Hilltoppers last year. There will be a battle among Martin and the new guys to take over for the departing Jeremy Darvin, but Martin is easily the favorite in my mind until proven otherwise.
At linebacker, Baker has his work cut out for him. He was reliable at Rice but would have to beat out either Jaden Hunter or Will Ignont for starting time, which is similarly unlikely. Hunter has spent time on the end and could be in for a move back there, but with Demetrius Cain (another frequent LB contributor) on the way out, it seems Hunter would be best used back at linebacker.
He’s a former four-star who started his career at Georgia and really only started to scratch the surface of his athletic potential in 2021 with 66 tackles. Ignont arrived from Tennessee in 2020 but was largely unable to play because of eligibility issues, getting his first major break in 2021 with 52 tackles.
The secondary is the only spot that seems likely to start multiple transfers, though Stout is the only one that I’m particularly confident in. He had 35 tackles with the Mean Green in 2020 before sitting out most of the 2021 season, and there’s just no one else here with any nickel-back experience. First-teamer Beanie Bishop transferred to Minnesota this offseason, and his backup, Omari Alexander, has graduated.
Weber will need to beat 2021 Georgia Tech transfer Kaleb Oliver (32 tackles, 0.5 TFL) and bench contributor Kendrick Simpkins for it, but there is a spot available at safety opposite returning starter A.J. Brathwaite Jr. (64 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack) with Antwon Kincaide graduating. Weber was great with the Cowboys, but I think this one is just about a toss-up between him and Oliver, with the winner immediately looking like a potential all-league selection heading into the season next to an already proven all-league guy in Brathwaite.
Lastly, at cornerback, there’s no drama. Dom Bradshaw, 2021 Oklahoma transfer Miguel Edwards and 2021 JUCO signee Kahlef Hailassie will form the primary rotation, backed by 2021 North Carolina transfer Tre Shaw and 2021 Michigan State transfer Davion Williams.
If the front six can take a step forward, this secondary should be good enough to lift Western Kentucky to some pretty serious defensive improvement – which it will need to contend again in the C-USA as the offense is almost certainly going to take at least a slight step back, unless Doege is incredible.