April 22, 2017

Mike Sanford has avoided pinching himself over his seamless transition into being a head coach at Western Kentucky because he knows better than to get too confident. One thing 12 years as an assistant has taught him, there will certainly be some setbacks.

There's no mistaking Sanford's optimism from his first spring drills with a Hilltoppers squad coming off their third straight bowl victory and second consecutive Conference USA title. He follows a tough act for sure, but relishes the challenge.

''The thing I come away with is they're a rowdy group of players who love the game and bring a lot of energy every day,'' Sanford said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. ''It's infectious to be around and the practices are the kind I've always wanted to be around.''

After two seasons as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Sanford was hired in December to replace Jeff Brohm, who left for Purdue. Brohm went 30-10 in three seasons in Bowling Green behind a high-octane offense that last season averaged 523 yards and led the nation with 45.5 points per game.

The youngest coach in FBS (35) hasn't promised anything bold like that - yet - but knows about high-powered offenses. Besides playing in one at Boise State (2000-04), he has worked under coaching notables such as Jim Harbaugh at Stanford (now at Michigan) and Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. Sanford helped develop Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer into a possible first-round prospect in next week's NFL Draft and coached a ground game to complement Andrew Luck at Stanford.

His assistant coaching odyssey that included stops at Boise State, Yale and UNLV also featured a 2010 stint at WKU as quarterbacks/passing game coach under Willie Taggart, who eventually led the Hilltoppers to their first FBS bowl in 2012. In learning under offense-minded mentors, Sanford also came to understand transition by watching his bosses step into new situations.

That experience has served Sanford well as he learns his way around the program and the city.

''I've picked up on building solid relationships with players and letting them know you can also better them as a person,'' he said. ''But you also let them know you care about them, and that's what we instilled in January and February.''

Sanford's team-building methods have included drafting squads for Saturday's spring game, a home run derby during baseball's opening week and a closest to the pin golf contest during the Masters. Acclimating senior quarterback Mike White to his scheme was an obvious priority for an offense that returns just four starters including two linemen.

White showed promise on Saturday by completing seven consecutive passes and finding Quin Jernighan for big plays in the first half for the Red squad. But the offensive star was sophomore back Quinton Baker, who rushed for touchdowns of 38, 47 and 74 yards to lead the White's 45-13 rout.

''We got to learn this offense, gel as a new offense and we got to learn the coaches as well,'' said White, who ranked fifth nationally with 4,363 yards and tied for eighth with 37 TDs. ''Overall, it was a very productive spring, but it doesn't stop here.''

The Hilltoppers return six defensive starters and have surprised Sanford with their quickness throughout the unit. Time will tell whether everything comes together and how soon, but he believes the pieces are there to be successful.

For sure, Sanford's first months at WKU have confirmed his belief as an assistant that Bowling Green would be a good place to start his career. His excitement over being hired resulted in him getting a speeding ticket on the way to his introduction, which he hopes is the only delay in his journey.

''It's definitely a good fit,'' Sanford said. ''The next step is putting all the details to it.''

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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