Western Kentucky starts new era with Mike Sanford as coach
Mike Sanford isn't complaining about starting his head coaching career with a tough act to follow at Western Kentucky.
A longtime assistant who spent the past two seasons at Notre Dame, Sanford inherits a Hilltoppers program that has won consecutive Conference USA championships and their last three bowl games. They're the preseason favorite to win the East Division again.
Fortunately for WKU (11-3, 7-1 C-USA last season), Sanford's pedigree as an offensive assistant under such notable coaches as Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh qualified him for the challenging opportunity. He's already familiar with Bowling Green, Kentucky, having spent 2010 as quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator under Willie Taggart.
''It was really important to me and my wife (Ann-Marie) to not just think about, `Am I going to get my opportunity, but if I do, is it the right one?''' said Sanford, 35, who succeeded Jeff Brohm following his departure for Purdue.
''We knew that Western Kentucky was right because we had been through it and believed in what we were going to be selling.''
Sanford's mission now is keeping WKU's high-octane offense cruising at top speed with a lot of new faces. Having standout senior quarterback Mike White to lead one more time certainly helps.
The South Florida transfer was C-USA Newcomer of the Year after passing for 4,363 yards and 37 touchdowns as a junior. The media's preseason pick as Offensive Player of the Year just has to adapt to new targets after losing Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, who rank 1-2 all-time in receptions, yards and TDs.
White mentioned several players battling in fall camp to be the go-to guy, competition that could give him plenty of options.
''The receiver group as a whole kind of took it upon themselves to answer that question mark going into the season,'' White said.
Other things to watch in Mike Sanford's first season as WKU's coach:
HANDING OFF: Top rusher Anthony Wales (1,621 yards and a nation's-best 27 TDs) is gone, but plenty of ball carriers are ready to pick up where he left off. Sophomores Quinton Baker and Marquez Trigg combined for 881 yards and six TDs, and D'Andre Ferby is back from a season-ending shoulder injury. The NCAA granted senior Leon Allen a medical hardship waiver and he seeks his first extensive action since rushing for 1,542 yards and 13 TDs in 2014. The Hilltoppers have had a 1,000-yard rusher for seven straight seasons.
LOADED DEFENSE: A sometimes-overlooked unit has a chance to seize the spotlight with six starters back among 27 returning lettermen. Junior linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe (64 tackles, 3.5 sacks in 2016) appears poised for bigger things on a defense that ranked second nationally behind Alabama against the run (97.2 yards allowed per game).
KEY GAMES: Visits to Big Ten member Illinois (Sept. 9) and the Southeastern Conference's Vanderbilt (Nov. 4) highlight the non-conference schedule. WKU opens C-USA play on Sept. 16 against West Division favorite Louisiana Tech in a possible preview of the conference championship.
PREDICTION: Despite breaking in its third coach since 2012, WKU is strong enough in many areas to pursue a record third straight C-USA title.
SEASON OPENER: WKU hosts Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 2.
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