Recent coaching changes have only boosted Western Kentucky's prospects, a pattern Mike Sanford can't wait to continue in his first coaching job.
WKU opens fall practice Monday under the first-time head coach, who worked most recently as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. His arrival follows a 12-year journey as an assistant that included a 2010 stop in Bowling Green under Willie Taggart, who's starting over at Oregon.
Sanford took over the program last December after Jeff Brohm left for Purdue following a remarkable three-year, 30-10 stretch highlighted by consecutive Conference USA championships and bowl wins. WKU's third coach since Taggart's 2012 departure for South Florida looks to continue the winning that has continued under Bobby Petrino, now at Louisville, and Brohm.
Following successful coaches isn't an issue for Sanford, 35, who learned how to handle expectations working under such notables as Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and Brian Kelly in South Bend, Indiana. And the Hilltoppers' grasp of his philosophy during spring drills and over the summer suggests they're ready to build on it for real.
''We've just got to work through the personnel side,'' Sanford said during a WKU media tour in Louisville this week. ''And then I want our operation to be a clean, well-oiled machine offensively, defensively and special teams-wise in terms of communication and flow. We're going to do that by getting ourselves into a lot of game-like situations.''
WKU returns 12 starters from an 11-3 squad (7-1 C-USA) and won the Boca Raton Bowl, the program's third straight postseason win. Just four are back from the nation's fifth-ranked offense last season (523.1 yards per game), though one of them is senior quarterback Mike White (4,363 yards, 37 touchdowns), who ranked top-10 nationally in several passing categories.
The Hilltoppers must replace their top two receivers along with running back Anthony Wales (1,621 yards rushing, 27 TDs). The ground game has experience with senior Leon Allen and junior D'Andre Ferby back from injuries, but the Hilltoppers must fill some openings up front.
''We focused this spring on what our bread-and-butter plays would be and just built on that during the summer,'' senior offensive lineman Matt Nord said. ''Our offense doesn't plan on skipping a beat.''
WKU has defensive depth throughout, and Sanford hopes to build a strong pass rush from the front seven along with the secondary.
''We just have to make sure we don't get too far ahead of our ourselves,'' said senior cornerback Joe Brown, who's on the Jim Thorpe Award preseason watch list after making 43 tackles with two sacks last season.
The `Toppers seek a record third consecutive league title, and conference media has picked them to win the East division. WKU opens at home against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 2 and will play nonconference road games at Big Ten Illinois (Sept. 9) and Southeastern Conference member Vanderbilt (Nov. 4).
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