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WKU will play in its first spring game since 2019 after the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled spring football for the 2020 season.

With key departures and new additions on the roster for the Hilltoppers it will be worthwhile to observe what WKU might look like in the upcoming 2021 season.

InsideHilltopperSports.com’s Casey Warner breaks down what he’s watching for in this year’s upcoming spring game.

Head Coach Tyson Helton and staff gather around players during a 2021 spring practice. (Photo: @WKUFootball Twitter)
Head Coach Tyson Helton and staff gather around players during a 2021 spring practice. (Photo: @WKUFootball Twitter)

Can Bailey Zappe be the unquestioned leader under center?

Zappe comes to Bowling Green with records set at Houston Baptist of over 10,000 career passing yards and 78 career passing touchdowns. With that being said, the expectations are high now in a Tyson Helton offense. After a less than stellar transfer season from Tyrell Pigrome in 2020, the hopes for Zappe will be even higher than they were for Pigrome. While fans saw what graduate transfer Ty Storey did under center in 2019, one can only think Zappe has that ability and more for the Hilltoppers in 2021. The spring game will be a preview of what to expect from the Houston Baptist standout this coming season.

Which back will step up as the lead ball-carrier this season?

Running back Gaej Walker led WKU in rushing in each of the last two seasons which means the Hilltoppers must find answers to replace that in 2021. North Dakota State graduate transfer Adam Cofield will be a prime option this season as he is coming off of a very productive output in his last full season with the Bison. In house the Hilltoppers return redshirt juniors Jakairi Moses and CJ Jones whom both saw significant action last season. Freshman Noah Whittington also got 16 carries last season and has consistently clocked in as one of the fastest timed sprinters in spring practice up to this point.

Will the addition of three proven receivers solidify the pass-catching corps?

To begin last season, WKU veteran receivers Jahcour Pearson and Jacquez Sloan entered the transfer portal, greatly reducing the experience in the receiving room for 2020. While quarterback Tyrell Pigrome did not have a productive passing output, leading receiver Xavier Lane is gone in 2021. From Houston Baptist come quarterback Bailey Zappe and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, as well as three key receivers in Jerreth and Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff. The three standout pass catchers combined for over 1,200 yards in 4 games last season proving that they have what it takes to lead an offense through the air. As stagnant as WKU’s passing attack was last season it will be key that these three new additions get involved early and often in 2021.

Will DeAngelo Malone and Juwan Jones return to form in 2021?

As disappointing as 2020 was for the WKU defense overall, the pass rush was even more of a let down. DeAngelo Malone and Juwan Jones both reduced their sack and tackle for loss outputs last season. The reigning 2019 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Malone got off to a very sluggish start but turned it on towards the end of 2020 to snag a first team all-conference honor. On the other side, Jones totaled just two sacks in 12 games, his lowest output of his career. For the Hilltopper defense to return to dominant form in 2021 it will take peak production from both Malone and Jones coming off of each edge. All four starters on the defensive line return for WKU this season, proving that this position group will take the defense as far as it wants to go.

Which defensive backs will step up in place of four starters lost from 2020?

Another relatively disappointing position group for WKU last season was the defensive backfield which was led by six seniors. This season, four of those seniors are gone, including leading tackler Devon Key who has entered his name in the NFL Draft. Seniors Omari Alexander and Antwon Kincade will lead the way for the Hilltoppers in 2021 as well as redshirt sophomore Beanie Bishop who saw significant playing time last year. As a unit, the defensive backfield totaled just four interceptions in 2020. Incoming transfers Miguel Edwards, Tre Shaw and Davion Williams will look to add veteran experience to the defensive backfield as WKU will look to cut down on the big plays that cost them several games last season.

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