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NCAA Football: Marshall at Western Kentucky

Western Kentucky defensive end DeAngelo Malone (10), shown playing against Marshall in 2018, is the Hilltoppers’ top defensive player.

HUNTINGTON — Raise your hand if you thought that Tyson Helton would have brought a defensive juggernaut to Western Kentucky in his first season back with the Hilltoppers.

What? No takers? OK, I’ll give.

Helton was Western Kentucky’s offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015 when the Hilltoppers rode his scheme and the arm of Brandon Doughty into a 2015 Conference USA title.

So, the general thinking was that a high-powered offense was on deck when he took over the Hilltoppers as head coach for 2020.

It was not necessarily surprising that Helton won nine games in his first season back in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

However, it was crazy surprising to see it get accomplished the way it did. Western Kentucky was led by a stingy defense that allowed just a shade over 20 points a game.

That included limiting five of eight Conference USA opponents to 14 points or less and allowing only one C-USA team — Florida Atlantic — to reach the 30-point mark.

The scary part for Western Kentucky’s opposition is that seven returnees made at least 12 starts last year, and 10 returnees had at least six starts, meaning that the nucleus returns from a unit that finished 22nd nationally in scoring defense (20.1 points per game) and 24th in total defense (335.5 yards per game).

The best defensive player for Western Kentucky — and Conference USA, in my opinion — is defensive end DeAngelo Malone, who finished 2019 with 99 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 111/2 sacks.

His opposite is Juwuan Jones, who added 55 tackles, 121/2 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

At linebacker, Kyle Bailey returns after leading the team with 109 tackles while also collecting three interceptions last season. The linebacker position is bolstered as well by the addition of Tennessee transfer Will Ignont.

The back end is also experienced with four players boasting of 12 or more starts, led by strong safety Devon Key, who finished with 93 tackles.

Cornerbacks Dionte Ruffin, Trae Meadows and Roger Cray also could prove difficult against the pass in the nickel scheme for WKU.

Should that defensive production continue and Helton get his offense solidified, it should make for excitement for the Hilltoppers.

Offensively, the Hilltoppers lose two vital cogs off last year’s success: grad transfer quarterback Ty Storey and do-it-all wide receiver Lucky Jackson.

Storey’s defection and the transfer of former starter Steven Duncan mean that a new signal-caller will lead Helton’s offense in 2020.

The likely candidate for that role is grad transfer Tyrrell Pigrome, who comes to WKU from Maryland. Others in the mix include Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas, but with Pigrome being a veteran, the likelihood is that the Hilltoppers have a grad transfer again starting at quarterback.

Jahcour Pearson could be a likely candidate to fill Jackson’s do-everything role after catching 76 passes for 804 yards last season with a team-best seven touchdown receptions.

Pearson will be joined at receiver by Jacquez Sloan, who hauled in a respectable 34 passes for 297 yards last season.

However, a target that could emerge as a game-changer for Western Kentucky is tight end Josh Simon, who caught 30 passes for 430 yards and three scores. With Simon’s upside, it would not be surprising to see Helton utilize the tight end spot much more in 2020.

Western Kentucky’s non-conference schedule will give an early indication of the Hilltoppers’ prowess within Conference USA. Road games at Indiana and Louisville provide a measuring stick, and the Hilltoppers also have Liberty at home in an interesting battle.

The conference slate wastes no time ramping things up with a pair of rivalry matchups: a C-USA road opener at Middle Tennessee on Oct. 3, followed by a home date with Marshall on Oct. 10.

Road contests at UAB, Florida Atlantic and Charlotte are also not easy trips, meaning the offense will have to improve its output to make the Hilltoppers a contender.

No matter the opponent, though, the defense is strong enough that Western Kentucky should be in any game in which the Hilltoppers take the field.

In 2020, Helton’s goal is to bring the magic back from his days as the offensive coordinator to push Western Kentucky back to the top of Conference USA.