Jim Brown/For The Herald-Dispatch Western Kentucky Hilltoppers quarterback Steven Duncan (10) is rushed by Marshall Thundering Herd linebacker Frankie Hernandez (35) and Thundering Herd defensive lineman Ryan Bee (91) during the second half at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in Bowling Green, Ky. Marshall won 20-17.

HUNTINGTON - It seems like just yesterday that Western Kentucky was the team to beat in Conference USA.

In just two years, however, the Hilltoppers - also known as the Tops - descended to near the bottom of C-USA after a pair of dismal seasons under Mike Sanford.

Sanford is now gone and upstart position coach Tyson Helton - who was also at WKU during their C-USA title days under Jeff Brohm - is now taking the reins.

The hope is that Helton can restore the luster on the chromed-out helmets of Western Kentucky.

While there are pieces in place to get the job done, it will not be an easy turnaround.

Once thought of as the prototype for offense among Group of Five schools, Western Kentucky dwindled down below the 100 ranking in total offense, rushing offense and scoring offense in 2018.

Of those two, the most noteworthy is total offense and scoring offense.

Why? Well, that's simple. Because in 2016, Western Kentucky led all of FBS in points per game at 45.5 and was fifth in passing offense (336.8 yards per game) and total offense (523.1 yards per game).

That type of spiraling down-turn led Western Kentucky to fire Sanford and replace him with a guy who had experience leading that high-level offense before moving on to bigger positions as passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach at USC and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tennessee.

With Helton's emphasis on offense, the first duty he'll have is establishing a starting quarterback, which will bring some stability that the group did not have in 2018. Steven Duncan and Davis Shanley were part of a 2018 musical chairs at quarterback that included Drew Eckels, and they have the most experience, but Arkansas transfer Ty Storey is likely to be in the mix, as well.

Especially at the quarterback position, grad transfers don't often come to another venue to sit around as a backup.

No matter who the quarterback is, that individual inherits a talented receiving corps that suffered due to a lack of quarterback consistency last season. Lucky Jackson and Quin Jernighan return and are both supremely talented, along with Jacquez Sloan, who didn't get nearly as many targets as the other two, but still landed third on the team in receiving yards.

Under Helton, expect a quick-strike, up-tempo passing attack that is going to challenge whatever defense comes at the Hilltoppers. For a first-year coach, it's about sticking to what you know and that's precisely Helton's comfort zone, dating back to the days of quarterback Brandon Doughty.

If that passing attack is able to stabilize, it will open up the rushing attack, which also returns a solid, underrated talent in Joshua Samuel, who finished with 641 yards and a 5.3 yard-per-carry average despite the team's inability to sustain the pass.

Those numbers are solid and could increase due to two factors: (1) the passing attack's ability to move the ball and (2) an offensive front that has everyone returning, led by Miles Pate at tackle and Seth Joest at center. Joest's development in a faster scheme is crucial up front. More snaps equals more dependence on getting line calls correct to keep quarterbacks healthy.

Defensively, the linebacker spot takes a couple of big hits with Masai Whyte and Ben Holt both gone.

Eli Brown has to rise into the star that he could be at linebacker for the defense to improve on its suspect play of 2018.

The back end of the defense is solid, however, with safeties Ta'Corian Darden and Devon Key leading the way. Cornerbacks will have to be proven and there are some young, unproven talents who redshirted last year that could emerge, but Darden and Key having a presence back there will help with the transition.

After a season opener against Central Arkansas, Western Kentucky travels to FIU before coming home for contests against Louisville and UAB. That gives the Hilltoppers a pair of C-USA conference contenders out of the gate, squeezed around a Power Five opponent.

The final stretch of the season is also a difficult run, starting with an Oct. 26 date in Huntington against Marshall. That rivalry contest is followed by a home game against Florida Atlantic before road contests at Arkansas and Southern Miss.

Western Kentucky remains one of the most difficult teams in Conference USA to gauge because of the questions at quarterback and having a first-year head coach.

It could easily be another 3-9 or it could feasibly be an 8-4 campaign with the Hilltoppers making a late scare toward an East division title.

Personally, there is some genius behind Helton's work - especially while at WKU previously - and his schematics seem to fit the Group of Five level nicely.

Talent was not the issue in 2018 for Western Kentucky. Cohesion at the top was the issue, and the Hilltoppers' administration tried to rectify a mistake.

While they missed with Sanford, this writer's thought is that they hit big with Helton and Western Kentucky again becomes a force within C-USA.

A bowl game is not out of the question for 2018 as Helton sets the foundation for the future.


2019 Western Kentucky football

Location: Bowling Green, Kentucky

Mascot: Hilltoppers

Stadium: Houchens/L.T. Smith Stadium

2018 record: 3-9 (2-6 C-USA)

Established: 1906

Enrollment: 14,956

Affiliation: Division I - FBS

Conference: Conference USA - East Division

Head coach: Tyson Helton

Series history: Marshall leads 6-4