Note: This was part of a four-part football season preview that previously ran in the Daily News
By NICK BAUMGARDNER
The Daily News
When Western Kentucky began its transition into the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in 2007, there was one glaring hole that needed to be filled immediately, and was going to be hard to come by.
That was size.
WKU was routinely smaller on the offensive and defensive fronts during the initial stages of its transition, and, as expected, took some time – and two coaching staffs – to start accumulating the bulk necessary to be effective at the FBS level.
The Hilltoppers had one of their biggest and best offensive lines of their FBS era in 2010. A handful of those contributors were lost to graduation, but plenty of skilled big men are left on the roster.
Back to start at tackle for the fourth straight season will be Warren Central product Wes Jeffries (6-foot-4-inches, 295 pounds), who has served as an anchor up front for most of his WKU career, and will be the team’s best lineman this season.
Also back – and bigger – are sophomore center Sean Conway (6-3, 301) and junior guard Adam Smith (6-5, 334). WKU will have to replace the likes of departed linemen Preston King and Mychal Patterson, but added some bulk in its 2011 freshmen class, and had the luxury of developing other young linemen last season.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line has been one of WKU’s weak spots over the past three seasons.
The Hilltoppers have routinely been one of the worst clubs in America when it comes to sacking the quarterback, and last season, WKU finished last in the Sun Belt with 12 sacks.
The hitch there, though, is that for the past three years, the team has relied heavily on young and inexperienced players.
The majority of those formerly inexperienced players are about to enter their junior or senior seasons and their development will have to turn the corner if WKU expects to fix its biggest defensive weak spot of late.
Incumbents: Wes Jeffries, sr. T (6-4, 295), Adam Smith, jr. G (6-5, 334), Sean Conway, so. C (6-3, 301), Luke Stansfield, jr. G (6-4, 303), Seth White, jr. T (6-5, 290).
The expected starting front five for WKU this season is one of the biggest and most experienced offensive lines the Hilltoppers have started since the 2007 season.
Jeffries is a four-year starter, Smith and Conway were fixtures in the starting lineup last season, White saw plenty of action a year ago when then-senior Preston King was battling an injury and Stansfield saw action in eight games last year after missing the 2009 campaign due to injury.
All five had key roles in Bobby Rainey’s record-breaking rushing season of 2010, and all five will once again be called on to keep people away from quarterback Kawaun Jakes.
For the second straight year, WKU’s men up front should be leaned on as the backbone of the entire offense.
Next in line: Ed Hazelett, so. T (6-8, 309), William Berner, r-fr. G (6-3, 283), Luis Polanco, so. G (6-2, 289), Cameron Clemmons, r-fr. T (6-6, 291), , Zane Karrer, so. OL (6-3, 272).
WKU’s second unit up front isn’t short on size, either.
Polanco spent time as a tackle and a blocking tight end as a true freshman in 2010 and might work his way into the starting lineup before all is said and done.
Berner and Clemmons redshirted a year ago, and Clemmons – one of WKU’s highest-rated recruits in 2010 – has seen his weight rise roughly 30 pounds since arriving on campus.
Hazelett remains the wild card. The 6-8 sophomore who redshirted last year is one of WKU’s most physically imposing talents. But he’s still in the midst of grabbing onto a new position, as he entered WKU in 2009 as a tight end. He has an NFL frame and body type – but he’ll need to take the next step in his development before anyone starts looking that far down the road.
The rest: Cliff Burns, jr. (6-8, 335), Delryn Wilson, fr. (6-3, 289), Darrell Williams, fr. (6-6, 260), Tim Gorski, fr. (6-7, 247), Dwayne Montgomery, fr. (6-5, 254).
Darrell Williams, along with Wilson, Gorski and Montgomery, will most likely redshirt this season, as is often the case with first-year offensive linemen.
Burns is a mountain of a human, and the junior college transfer could work his way up the depth chart before fall camp breaks. Karrer is another versatile player who could be used in various spots along the offensive front.
Incumbents: Quanterus Smith, jr. DE (6-5, 244), Jamarcus Allen, jr. DT (5-11, 282), Kenny Martin, jr. DT (6-0, 283), Jared Clendenin, sr. DE (6-3, 272).
One of the biggest questions on the field this season: Will this be the year that the young WKU defensive line stops being young and starts being a force? Or will the group continue to struggle getting into opponents’ backfields?
Smith showed flashes of being unblockable off the edge at times last season, but was not consistent enough, given his potential. Clendenin has been a mainstay up front for four years, and has continued to improve each season – but he’s still looking for that breakout year.
Martin and Allen dubbed themselves the “tiny tackles” a year ago, and seemed content with proving size-doubters wrong. Allen was virtually unblockable during spring ball, and appears to be recovered from an Achilles’ tendon injury he suffered early in his career. Martin has always played with a high motor, and is also in search of a breakout season.
Next in line: Cole Tischer, jr. DE (6-4, 248), James Hervey, jr. DT (6-1, 274), Rammell Lewis, jr. DT (6-2, 294), Bo Adebayo, sr. DE (6-4, 268), Brandon Whitty, jr. DT (6-1, 288), Jamichael Payne, fr. DT (6-1, 350)
Lewis could be placed in the starting lineup by week one, as he’s worked in a consistent rotation with Martin and Allen for the better part of his career. Tischer has seen game action since his true freshman season and may push either starting end if things become inconsistent again.
Hervey, Whitty and Adebayo have all had their moments while at WKU, and Adebayo is coming off a strong spring – perhaps his best yet.
Payne is the biggest (literally) wild card here, and perhaps for the entire defense. Physically he’s ready to play right now. But he’s a true freshman, and has yet to see a college snap. He’s still the heaviest player on the team, and the closest thing size-wise WKU has had to a run-plugger in several years.
The rest: Ketler Calixte, jr. (6-3, 229), Lawrence Campbell, fr. (6-4, 210), Tevin Holliman, so. (6-2, 261), Dimitri Johnson, fr. (6-3, 236), Gavin Rocker, fr. (6-2, 225), Jonathan Scott, jr. (6-3, 236), Bryan Shorter, fr. (6-2, 272), T.J. Smith, fr. (6-2, 219).
The initial plan will be for most all the incoming freshmen up front here to redshirt, unless they prove the coaching staff they can compete right away.
But most of the newcomers are going to need time to add strength to their frames.
As for the rest, WKU’s defensive line has been one of its weakest position groups over the past few years from a production standpoint. Depth is always needed, and the chance to steal a job up front is still ripe for the picking.
See Monday’s Daily News for the final part of this four-part series as we preview the team’s defensive backs and linebackers.