Editor’s note: This is the last in a 12-part series previewing Marshall’s football opponents for the 2021 season.
HUNTINGTON — “Houston, we have a problem.”
Yes, it was a famous line from the movie "Apollo 13" once upon a time, but most recently it was possibly echoed from Western Kentucky head football coach Tyson Helton.
Known for his offensive mind, Helton’s Hilltoppers were among Conference USA’s worst offenses in 2020, ranking below 100 nationally in major offensive categories, which led to a 5-7 record.
The good news for Helton is that when he made his call to Houston, it was answered.
Coming into 2021, Helton chose Houston Baptist offensive coordinator Zach Kittley to run the Hilltoppers’ scheme, and Kittley had a lot of those who made him successful at Houston Baptist travel with him to Bowling Green, Kentucky, including quarterback Bailey Zappe and wide receivers Jerreth Sterns, Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff.
That’s lots of the 2020 production from a Houston Baptist team shifting to Western Kentucky.
The addition of Kittley and the collection of Houston Baptist talent did cause some shakeup to the returning lineup.
Returning starting quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal, which leaves the offense to Zappe, who threw for 3,811 yards and 35 touchdowns, which led FCS last year.
Helton does return receivers Mitchell Tinsley and Craig Burt to the starting mix, but the influx of transfers is likely to be those players who get the most run. In addition to the Houston Baptist connection with the Sterns brothers and Ratzlaff, the additions of Kendall Abdur-Rahman (Notre Dame) and Daewood Davis (UCF) will be worth noting.
The backfield will also feature a new face with Gaej Walker entering the transfer portal. Jakairi Moses and Adam Cofield — a North Dakota State transfer — will battle for the starting role.
The offensive line, which was the biggest issue of the 2020 team, returns starting tackles Cole Spencer and Mason Brooks, but both need to improve on a year in which they were part of a team that allowed 28 sacks last season.
Additions along the offensive front include Nebraska transfer Boe Wilson and Bowling Green transfer Cameron Stage, both of whom are expected to among the starters on the interior.
If Helton can get the offense going, there are some key pieces back defensively that could have the Hilltoppers in shape to at least win games on Saturdays.
The most noteworthy of all the defensive returnees is by far DeAngelo Malone, who should be on the short list for Preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year.
Malone, who finished with six sacks last season, is an edge that adds to a strong defensive front returning for the Hilltoppers. That front includes defensive end Juwuan Jones and defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin.
There are no returnees at linebacker, but transfer Will Ignont (Tennessee) brings talent to the unit that will include experienced backer Nick Days.
In the secondary, leading tackler Antwon Kincade returns after an 85-tackle season last year. He will be joined at safety by A.J. Brathwaite while cornerbacks Dominique Bradshaw and Beanie Bishop are joined by nickelback Omari Alexander.
Special teams could help win a few games for the Hilltoppers in 2021 with the kicking trio of Brayden Narveson (placekicking), Cory Munson (kickoffs) and John Haggerty (punting) all returning.
The schedule is one that features a tough non-conference schedule, but if the Hilltoppers can weather the storm, it will provide experience for a Conference USA slate that has several potential wins early.
Western Kentucky can build up to the late portion of the schedule which will not be easy to close out the regular season. The Hilltoppers’ final three games are at Rice, a home date against Florida Atlantic and at Marshall.
Given the changes in personnel, there is no team in C-USA more volatile than Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers could win three or four games if the offensive line still struggles, or they could be in position to battle for an East Division title if everything jells under Helton.
That leaves the Hilltoppers as one of Conference USA’s most intriguing teams to watch as 2021 gets underway.