Note: This was part of a four-part football season preview that previously ran in the Daily News
By NICK BAUMGARDNER
The Daily News
After allowing 366 passing yards in a 38-21 loss at the hands of Indiana last season, Western Kentucky football coach Willie Taggart had seen enough.
Following the loss, Taggart exclaimed that he was going to find some defensive backs on his roster who would play the position “the way it was supposed to be played.”
“We’re going to play guys that can help us win ballgames and that can do what we ask them to do,” Taggart said following the loss. “If you don’t produce, bad things happen. If you do, good things happen.”
The three biggest immediate beneficiaries of Taggart’s decree that day were then-true freshman cornerbacks Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright and then-redshirt freshman safety Kiante Young.
All three were inserted in the starting lineup following that week-three loss to Indiana. And one week later at South Florida, all three began to make an immediate impact.
Wright picked up a sack, Robinson kept receivers at bay and Young picked off a pass as the suddenly rejuvenated WKU secondary played beyond its years – and held USF to 57 yards through the air.
Together with then-sophomore safety Kareem Peterson, the trio of Wright, Robinson and Young became fixtures in the Hilltopper secondary, helping a once sieve-like WKU defensive backfield improve to the fourth-best statistical unit in the Sun Belt in 2010.
The better news? WKU lost little production from its defensive backfield. Robinson, Wright, Peterson and Young return a year faster and stronger. Veterans Derrius Brooks and Ryan Beard also return for their final years in WKU uniforms.
The defensive backfield, though young, may anchor the Hilltopper defense this season, and it might have to. Because as much production as the squad returns on the back end this season, it lost that much and more in its linebacking corps.
Linebackers Thomas Majors, Chris Bullard and Orlando Misaalefua graduated after last season, making all three spots in the heart of the defense perhaps the most open position races this fall.
Incumbents: Tyree Robinson, so. CB (5-feet-10-inches, 196 pounds), Arius Wright, so. CB (5-10, 188), Kiante Young, so. SS (5-11, 220), Ryan Beard, sr. FS (6-0, 189).
Robinson, Wright and Young almost single-handedly changed the culture of WKU’s defense midway through last season, and that carried over into the spring.
All three are confident, talented players. And though young, they will be counted on for leadership and consistency on the field this season.
Beard is also back for his final year at WKU after revitalizing his career in 2010 with 71 tackles. Gone was the Beard of 2009 who struggled through injuries and off-field issues, and back was the player who impressed many during his prep days at Bowling Green High School and early in his college career. Beard’s played a lot of football at WKU during his time on the Hill, and he should be a leader this season.
Next in line: Derrius Brooks, sr. CB (5-10, 192), William Simmons, jr. CB (5-8, 184), Kareem Peterson, jr. FS (5-11, 184), Ricardo Singh, r-Fr. SS (5-11, 192).
Brooks made the switch from wide receiver last season, and will likely once again be WKU’s fastest end-to-end sprinter. Peterson has been in and out of the starting lineup since his true freshman season, and has become a dependable safety.
Simmons and Singh worked their way into the rotation this spring with impressive efforts, but neither has made an impact in a game yet for WKU.
The rest: Jamal Forrest, jr. CB (5-9, 161), Champ Lewis, fr. CB (6-2, 175), Eric Robinson-Berry, fr. CB (6-1, 191), Cam Thomas, r-Fr. S (6-1, 185), Vince Williams, so. CB (5-9, 189), Ty Scott, S (6-2, 196), Jonathan Dowling, CB/S/WR, so. (6-3, 194).
Forrest has the most experience of this youthful group, and will likely serve in a backup role this season, while Williams and Scott also provided plenty of depth last year, and will likely fight for snaps again this season.
Lewis and Robinson-Berry were both highly rated recruits, while Thomas – a three-star 2010 recruit – will make his debut after missing last season due to grades.
The asterisk here is Dowling – who could be the most talented player on the roster, but will sit out this season due to a transfer from Florida.
WKU lost its three best linebackers from a season ago in Thomas Majors, Chris Bullard and Orlando Misaalefua.
Next in line: Xavius Boyd, so. OLB (6-2, 210), Tye Golden, jr. MLB (6-2, 226), Bar’ee Boyd, so. OLB (6-1, 224).
Golden was the team’s most impressive linebacker this spring and is the man to beat in the middle as of now. He’ll have big shoes to fill, though, as Majors posted two straight 100-tackle seasons before graduating last season.
The Boyd brothers had big moments for WKU as true freshmen last season, with Xavius making seven starts at outside linebacker and Bar’ee making appearances in 10 games and playing special teams.
The rest: Tyler Julian, jr. OLB (6-0, 225), Ben Duvall, sr. OLB (6-3, 229), Mike Federspiel, so. MLB (6-3, 223), Chuck Franks, LB so. (6-2, 243), Andrew Jackson, so. MLB (6-1, 255), C.J. Odom, jr. MLB (6-0, 231), Tenerio Davis, sr. LB (6-2, 224), Tavis Ciochetty, jr. OLB (5-11, 235), Daerius Washington, fr. OLB (6-0, 194), Terran Williams, fr. OLB (6-2, 206).
The crazy part about this list is the fact that every single person on it could end up being in the starting lineup at one point or another this season.
The linebacker position is the most wide-open group on the field right now for the Hilltoppers. Julian and Duvall had excellent camps this spring, as did Federspiel.
Franks missed all of last season with a knee injury, but showed plenty of promise prior to the setback. Jackson and Odom both have the size to play in the middle. Washington was perhaps WKU’s biggest get during the recruiting season. He chose WKU over offers from Kentucky, Syracuse, Middle Tennessee, Rutgers and Central Michigan.
Every linebacker on the roster has a chance to make a splash this fall, meaning that this should be the most entertaining group to watch as they compete for a spot during practice sessions.