First-year head coach Willie Taggart was a standout quarterback at Western Kentucky and has spent all of his 10 years as an assistant coach on the offensive side of the ball. But if his Hilltoppers -- who enter the 2010 campaign riding a 20-game losing streak -- are to make significant strides this fall, it will have to start with an improvement on the defensive side.
Western Kentucky lost by an average margin of 19.2 points per game in 2009 while allowing nearly 480 yards per contest. The 39.6 points allowed per game ranked 119th among 120 FBS teams. The rush defense ranked 118th (244.8 ypg) and the pass defense finished only marginally better in 81st (233.4 ypg) as it was unable to put pressure on opposing offenses. WKU created only 10 sacks and six interceptions on the season.
Despite the tall task, defensive coordinator Clint Bowen may have an easier time than most preparing his unit for its first experience at Memorial Stadium. Bowen is familiar with the venue and the Huskers after spending 12 years on the sidelines at Kansas, where he was the defensive coordinator the past two years after sharing the coordinator duties in 2006 and 2007.
The Hilltoppers have implemented a 4-3 defense this fall, switching from the 3-4 alignment used the past few years. There is solid depth in place for the move to a four-man front to be successful. Last week, Taggart praised the unit, telling the student paper, "They started to play how we're asking them to play. That's going to set the tone for our defense."
The rotation looks young on paper after WKU worked eight players into the three line positions last year, including six freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Jared Clendenin, a junior this fall, is the elder statesman of the line after starting 11 games last year while adding 40 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs and a sack. The team's defensive captain, Clendenin is expected to carry a large portion of the load along with sophomore Quanterus Smith, who has switched from linebacker to defensive end. Sophomore defensive tackle Kenny Martin is also back in the starting rotation for a second year.
Despite some concern about injuries during fall camp, Taggert and Bowen have high expectations for the linebackers. Thomas Majors was a tackling machine last year, leading the team with 101 stops including 42 solos. He will be joined in the middle by fellow seniors Chris Bullard (46 tackles) and Orlando Misaalefua (48 tackles), who played safety the past two years and will add speed to the linebacking corps.
In the secondary, the speed and quickness in recent recruiting classes has been upgraded as much as any position. Bowen will have the benefit of molding those young players and fusing them with a few veteran returnees as he tries to build depth in the defensive backfield.
One thing Bowen may not have to concern himself with is tackling in the secondary. Senior Mark Santoro and sophomore Kareem Peterson return as the starting safeties after ranking second and fourth in tackles last year, respectively, while combining for 157 stops. Peterson was first on the squad with 46 solos while Santoro was second with 43. Another youngster, sophomore Jamal Forest, returns to start at cornerback after finishing with 32 tackles, four pass breakups and one interception to tie for the team lead.