Hawaii Football: First Look At The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
After a record-setting offense helped them light up Conference USA, what comes next for WKU in 2022?
Talk about a tough act to follow.
After hosting Vanderbilt in Week 0, the Hawaii Warriors will close out a two-game homestand to open 2022 against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Will this be a potential points bonanza? Timmy Chang’s return to the islands as head coach signals a possible return to the high-flying Warriors offenses of old, while WKU will have to prove last year’s unique transfer portal gambit won’t make them into a one-hit wonder.
Location: Bowling Green, Kentucky
Conference: Conference USA
Series History: This will be the first meeting between Hawaii and Western Kentucky.
2021 Record: 9-5 (7-2 CUSA)
Head Coach: Tyson Helton (fourth year at Western Kentucky, 25-16 overall). Sometimes, when you swing for the fences, you hit a moonshot. That was certainly the case for WKU last year, when the ‘Toppers imported offensive coordinator Zack Kittley, his quarterback Bailey Zappe, and a trio of wide receivers from FCS Houston Baptist and then proceeded to light up the scoreboard, averaging 44.2 points and 433.7 passing yards per game en route to a berth in the Conference USA title game.
Now comes the hard part: What do you do for an encore? Kittley jumped to Texas Tech while Zappe and top receiver Jerreth Stearns left for the NFL, leaving Helton to reload for another run at a conference crown.
Jarret Doege, QB
Doege may be the guy asked to fill some of the biggest shoes anywhere in the country this season, but chances are he won’t be overwhelmed by the opportunity. In five years at Bowling Green and West Virginia, he threw for 10,494 yards and 79 touchdowns, both of which are the most among active FBS quarterbacks, with a 2.2% interception rate.
WKU quarterback Jarret Doege showcases his arm strength and accuracy, finding wide receiver Daewood Davis in the end zone. pic.twitter.com/cheSN6TcFi
— Drew Toennies (@drew_toennies) April 23, 2022
Daewood Davis, WR
Davis was one of several major contributors to last year’s offensive blitzkrieg, but this year he’s likely to be the offense’s number one target. He set career highs in 2021 with 43 receptions, 773 yards, and eight touchdowns, proving he can be very dangerous with the ball down the field.
Juwuan Jones, DE
The offense got the spotlight, but the Western Kentucky defense had impact players like Jones, too. The former freshman All-American tallied 45 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks and will be counted on for more in his fourth season as a starter.
Juwuan Jones playing both RB and QB is beautiful defensive end play. pic.twitter.com/4pjORxWVnW
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) December 4, 2021
Quantavious Leslie, OL
The Hilltoppers were often a pass first, second, and third offense, but that wouldn’t have been as effective as it was without quality offensive line play. That’s where Leslie, a second-team all-Conference USA pick who posted a 82.6 pass-blocking grade according to Pro Football Focus that was second-best among guards in C-USA, figures to shine once again as a sophomore.
Rome Weber, S
If you recognize the name, that’s because Weber played in 29 games for Wyoming in 2018, 2019, and 2021. He made eight starts last year and picked up 41 tackles, two tackles for loss, and three pass breakups before departing via the transfer portal, so while other Cowboys ended up in flashier destinations, few could be as important to their new unit as Weber.
If you don’t know, the Hilltoppers offense was pretty good in 2021, finishing behind Ohio State and Coastal Carolina by points per drive and trailing only the Buckeyes in available yards percentage earned. Can they keep that up with so much turnover, though?
Much will depend on who actually replaces Bailey Zappe, with Doege and West Florida transfer Austin Reed (54.8% completion rate, 3,418 yards, 38 touchdowns) as the leading candidates. That QB1 will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, though, not just Davis but also Malachi Corley (73 catches, 691 yards, seven touchdowns), tight end Josh Simon, who missed nearly all of 2021 with injury but had 33 catches for 370 yards and three scores the previous season; and a pair of MAC transfers in Jaylen Hall (46-752-3 at Western Michigan) and Michael Mathison (56-706-3 at Akron).
By contrast, the offensive line is going through a good deal more transition despite the returns of both Leslie and center Rusty Staats. More will be asked of players like Michael Goode and Gunner Britton, who were role players during WKU’s run to the championship game last fall.
While the offense was busy lighting up scoreboards every week, the Hilltoppers defense was often more preoccupied with hanging on, finishing 88th and 81st by available yards percentage allowed and points per drive allowed, respectively. They also weren’t terribly disruptive on the whole, posting a team stuff rate of just 12.8% that ranked 122nd nationally, and now they have find answers without the help of star DeAngelo Malone, a third-round NFL Draft pick this past spring.
Having Jones back will help, but he can’t do it all himself. Defensive tackle Darius Shipp (41 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) and sophomore linebacker Jaques Evans should lead the way in that regard, which could make life easier for veterans Will Ignont (54 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) and Jaden Hunter (67 tackles, five TFLs, three sacks) in the front seven.
The secondary is also undergoing some reshuffling, too, with transfers like Weber and Upton Stout (North Texas) joining returnees like Kahlef Hailassie (57 tackles, three TFLs, two interceptions) and Kaleb Oliver. It was a unit that got attacked early and often last year, facing 519 pass attempts in all, but they gave as good as they got with 21 interceptions, trailing only Iowa among all FBS teams, and hope to do more of the same in 2022.
With so much turnover on paper, it seems unfair to hold this year’s Hilltoppers to last year’s high standards. However, the offense should remain potent enough to outlast a good number of opponents on their schedule. Even if Hawaii looks like they’ll be able to land some body blows against the WKU defense, they may not have enough to outlast the visitors here.
Western Kentucky 42, Hawaii 34