2014 CFN Preview - WKU Hilltoppers
WKU WR Willie McNeal
WKU WR Willie McNeal
Posted May 29, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - WKU lost its coach, but joins a new league and steps up its level. (Getty Images)

WKU Hilltoppers

Preview 2014

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By Rich Cirminiello
- 2014 WKU Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Jeff Brohm
First year: 0-0
Returning Lettermen
Off. 21, Def. 21, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 20
Ten Best WKU Players
1. CB Cam Thomas, Sr.
2. WR Willie McNeal, Sr.
3. OT Forrest Lamp, Soph.
4. QB Brandon Doughty, Sr.
5. OG Cam Clemmons, Sr.
6. RB Leon Allen, Jr.
7. DE Gavin Rocker, Jr.
8. TE Mitchell Henry, Sr.
9. WR Nicholas Norris, Soph.
10. DT Devante Terrell, Soph.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 29 Bowling Green
Sep. 6 at Illinois
Sep. 13 at Middle Tennessee
Sep. 27 at Navy
Oct. 4 UAB
Oct. 18 at Florida Atlantic
Oct. 25 Old Dominion
Nov. 1 at Louisiana Tech
Nov. 8 UTEP
Nov. 15 Army
Nov. 22 UTSA
Nov. 28 at Marshall

The Hilltoppers knew they were renting Bobby Petrino, but they still hoped to have him around for longer than a year.

Petrino returned to Louisville, creating an opportunity for former Cardinals QB Jeff Brohm to become a head coach for the first time. In Brohm, Western Kentucky has the next best thing at the helm. More than just an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks, he's an up-and-comer with intimate knowledge of the Topper personnel. Brohm spent last season coordinating Petrino's offense, which smashed 18 single-season school records. So, continuity won't be as problematic as it typically is following coaching changes.

Brohm takes the reins of a Western Kentucky team that went 8-4 a year ago and is beginning life as one of the newest members of Conference USA. For the staff, the offseason focus has been about finding new leaders and new starters for a roster that lost most of last year's All-Sun Belt performers to graduation or early entry into the NFL.

The move to Conference USA is significant for the Tops. Better competition. A little more exposure. But even more important will be the improved access to the postseason. Western Kentucky has appeared in just one bowl game, the 2012 Little Caesars Bowl, despite finishing above .500 in each of the last three seasons. Conference USA, in stark contrast to the Sun Belt, boasts six automatic bowl bids, one of which WKU hopes to snatch in December.

If the Hilltoppers are going to play beyond the regular season finale, they'll need a handful of former role players to step up their games in 2014. Petrino isn't the only key figure who's no longer on campus. Five First Team All-Sun Belt performers are gone, including RB Antonio Andrews, who rushed more than 1,700 yards in each of the last two seasons. Someone will have to pick up the offensive slack. Someone, say, like erratic QB Brandon Doughty. After throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns in 2013, Doughty has been the pet project of Brohm and new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton throughout this offseason.

For the second straight year, Western Kentucky is adapting to a new head coach after the old one left for a better gig. The difference this time is that Brohm is no stranger to the campus or the players. He's looking to enhance what Petrino and Willie Taggart started, while quickly getting accustomed to the new surroundings of Conference USA.

What to watch for on offense: The competition up front. The Hilltoppers are replacing three offensive linemen, none more important than all-star LG Luis Polanco. Forrest Lamp will anchor the tackles, and Cam Clemmons is a rock at right guard. The other three regulars, though, are up in the air. Fingers are crossed that Max Halpin and Darrell Williams can improve upon their debut seasons. As redshirt freshmen, Halpin and Williams received a crash course in blocking, starting six and three games, respectively, in 2013.

What to watch for on defense: Newcomers will be expected to crack the two-deep. After being gutted by graduation, there aren't many sure-things on defense for coordinator Nick Holt. CB Cam Thomas and linemen Gavin Rocker, Devante Terrell and Bryan Shorter are expected to regain their jobs. After the quartet? Competition for jobs will be stiff right up until the end of August. LB Dejon Brown, a transfer from Mt. San Jacinto (Calif.) Community College, is an example of a signee who'll be counted on to bolster an overhauled corps of linebackers.

The team will be far better if … it stops being so careless with the ball. QB Brandon Doughty threw too many picks. RB Antonio Andrews put the ball on the grass too often. The end game was a team that ranked 119th nationally in turnovers. Obviously, Doughty has got to make better decisions this fall, but flipping turnover margin will be a collaborative effort at Western Kentucky. With so many new starters being broken in, this team can longer afford to put its D in impossible situations.

The Schedule: The Hilltoppers have an interesting non-conference slate, getting to start out the season against defending MAC champion Bowling Green before going to Illinois. Navy and Army will test the run defense, with the game against Midshipmen the third in a brutal run of four road games in five dates. The payoff comes late with three straight November home games before closing out at Marshall with only six days of rest. Missing defending Conference USA champion Rice from the West helps, and it's all about the interdivisional play for a while in November with Louisiana Tech, UTEP and UTSA to deal with.

Best offensive Player: Senior WR Willie McNeal. No one is more important to the success of the 2014 Toppers than QB Brandon Doughty. And no one will positively impact Doughty's senior year than McNeal. No. 10 is a quarterback's best friend, experienced, sure-handed and capable of turning nothing into something. McNeal has had a solid three-season career as Western Kentucky's most explosive wide receiver. Now that he and Doughty have had a full campaign together, they'll feed off one another, while clicking on at least 50 connections and six touchdowns.

Best defensive Player: Senior CB Cam Thomas. Forget Thomas' numbers, which were impressive enough in 2013. His value to the Toppers extends far beyond a box score. He's so long, lean and instinctive in pass defense that it discourages quarterbacks from testing his side of the field. Rather than challenge Thomas, opponents opted for a more conservative approach. Star S Jonathan Dowling left school with a year of eligibility remaining. Thomas remained on The Hill, giving Western Kentucky a next-level defensive back for a second straight year.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Brandon Doughty. How important is it that Doughty performs with more confidence and accuracy this season? In 2013, the Toppers were 0-3 when he threw more than one pick. When he was intercepted no more than once, Western Kentucky went 8-1. For this program to take another step forward, it must get better consistency from the quarterback position. Doughty has the talent, supporting cast and coaching to turn things around and become the undisputed leader of the attack.

The season will be a success if ... the Hilltoppers earn their second bowl berth in school history. It's going to be a season of challenges for Western Kentucky, from the new league and staff to the wholesale lineup changes. But Brohm is uniquely positioned to surprise in his first year as the head coach. He has a senior starter at quarterback, and his program has learned to thrive following three winning seasons in a row. And unlike the past few years, seven wins in the regular season ought to be good enough to land that coveted postseason invitation.

Key game: Aug. 28 vs. Bowling Green. One game does not make a season. But one well-placed victory can do wonders for a program in transition. While every team wants to start fast, it's especially important for a Hilltopper squad beginning anew in so many key areas. Bowling Green won 10 games last season, and will be expected to again compete for the MAC title. If Western Kentucky can deliver an upset in front of the home crowd, the Brohm era will be off to a rousing start.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Passer rating: Western Kentucky 134.47 – Opponents 117.10
- Turnovers: Western Kentucky 31 – Opponents 21
- Sacks: Western Kentucky 27 – Opponents 20

- 2014 WKU Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players