WKU football: Most important defenders in 2010

26 07 2010

In sticking with some preview stuff for the 2010 Western Kentucky football season, which will get underway on Aug. 9 when fall camp officially opens, I thought this week we’d take a look at the three most important players on the defensive side of the ball and the offensive side of the ball for the Hilltoppers in 2010.

Today, we’ll start with the defense – which, as most of you are aware, has literally nowhere to go but up after finishing in the bottom three nationally in total defense a season ago.

But in order for that improvement to happen, here are three players that absolutely have to have big time years for the Hilltopper defense to be successful:

Western Kentucky senior linebacker Thomas Majors will be a player to watch in 2010. Photo courtesy of WKUsports.com.

Thomas Majors, MLB (Sr.) 6-0, 243
– WKU’s top tackler from a season ago seemed to often be the diamond in an otherwise extraordinarily rough defense in 2009.

If the Hilltoppers are going to snap this losing skid, the defense is going to have to find a way to improve. No. 118 in total defense isn’t going to get it done.

And anyone who knows anything about football knows this above all else: Defense is more about effort and attitude than anything else.

Meaning that someone needs to grab this unit by the collective facemask once camp starts and state  – kindly or not – that missed tackles, blown coverage and non-aggressive play won’t be part of the equation this season when the Hilltopper defense is on the field.

Majors is the man in the middle – the huddle is his, and barring any unforeseen events, he’ll likely be on the field for just about every important defensive snap this season.

So with that said, the Hilltopper defense’s attitude adjustment needs to be sent by Majors.

He’s proven that individually, he’s athletic and physical enough to hang  at the FBS level.

Now he needs to prove himself as a leader for the collective success of WKU’s defensive unit.

Mark Santoro, S, (Jr.) 6-0, 194
– There will likely be a lot of flux in the secondary for the Hilltoppers this season, with a slew of incoming freshmen and a handful of redshirt freshmen entering into the mix with the returners from last season.

And that’s probably a good thing for WKU, as the overall ability to make plays in the secondary in 2009 was just about non-existent.

The Hilltoppers recorded just six interceptions as a team last season – that’s right, just six. I once saw Ty Detmer toss seven interceptions in one game for my beloved Detroit Lions years ago – so maybe that puts things into perspective.

On top of that, just two of those six interceptions were made by defensive backs – and one of those DBs is no longer with the team.

In other words: the time for a total overhaul on the back end is probably long overdue.

Santoro is unquestionably the most seasoned of any WKU defensive back. He’s played in every game since the 2008 season and has racked up 151 tackles in that time.

He’s shown an ability to have a nose for the football even when certain players around him look lost. But more importantly, he almost naturally assumed a leadership role in the defensive backfield as a redshirt freshman in 2008 and continued it last season.

In practice last season when things started to look like a three-ring circus back there at times, Santoro was generally the player who spoke the loudest in an effort to right the ship.

On above all else, he’s a competitor. He’s durable, he plays hard and it’ll be tough for anyone to likely unseat him as a starter – he’s no doubt a player that Willie Taggart has already looked at to become a true leader of the team in general – not just the defensive side of the ball.

Santoro, like every other defensive back on the squad, will have to improve his overall pass coverage ability – but like Majors, he’ll be the rock that the younger players likely look up to.

Jared Clendenin, DE (Jr.) 6-3, 265
– The time for Clendenin to turn the corner and become a legitimate All-Conference-type player at the defensive end position is now.

A two-year starter that generally drew almost all the attention from opposing offensive lines in WKU’s former 3-4 scheme, Clendenin will be getting some more help up front this season as the Hilltoppers switch to a 4-3 defensive base.

And he’ll need all the help he can get.

WKU’s 10 total sacks as a team last season put them at dead last in the country. And as bad as that interception total was a year ago, the lack of overall sacks and tackles for loss might have been the most telling stat of all for what was a putrid Hilltopper defense in 2009.

No pressure on the quarterback means that defensive backs have to cover longer and become more suspect to big plays. The inability to tie up blockers and get into the backfield means that linebackers are constantly having to fend off two or three people when trying to stop the run – which leads to bigger gashes.

The phrase ‘it all starts up front’ might not have ever been more true than it was a year ago.

Much like Santoro, Clendenin is the unquestioned leader of this group. He’s missed just one game since arriving on campus in 2008.

He’s got the size and the ability to make some things happen from a pass rush standpoint, and the addition of an extra down lineman up front will no doubt help.

But at the end of the day, like basically everything else on the defensive side of the ball, sacks generally come from effort. Clendenin’s overall motor is rarely lacking, as he’s one of the more energetic players on the roster.

He’s got two full years of FBS football under his belt now, the time for him to make the stride from a promising young player into a highly-effective veteran lineman has arrived.

Will he be up to the challenge?

We’ll find out in a little over a month.

ON TUESDAY: We’ll look at the three most important offensive players in 2010

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