BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — WKU Football Head Coach Tyson Helton announced a series of promotions within the coaching staff. The Hilltoppers are coming off a 9-5 season in which the team went 7-1 in Conference USA play to claim the league’s East Division championship, then capped the campaign with a 59 win. -38 on App State in the RoofClaim 2021.com Boca Bol Raton.
Andy La Russa — entering his fourth year on the staff — will add an assistant head coaching title, while serving as special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. For the past three seasons, LaRussa was the special teams coordinator and safety coach for the WKU.
Ben Arbuckle – who was offensive quality control coach in 2021 – will become a full-time assistant as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Josh Crawford — entering his second year on the staff — will add an offensive coordinator title, while also serving as a wide receivers coach. As of 2021, Crawford was the outside receivers coach for WKU.
Zach Lankford — who was offensive quality control coach in 2021, but is entering his seventh career season at the WKU — will become a full-time assistant as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
Vestal Scott — who was a defensive analyst for the Hilltoppers in 2021 — will become a full-time assistant coach for the Inside Linebackers.
Russia had successful special teams units in his first three years on the Hill. In 2019, punter John Haggerty III was named First Team All-CUSA, the first Hilltopper punter since Brian Claybourn in 2003 and 2004 to be named First Team All-Conference. First year kicker Cory Munson hit a game-winning field goal from 52 yards to give WKU a 23-20 victory over Western Michigan in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl. Meanwhile, long snapper Jared Nash, was named a second-team All-CUSA. In terms of kick and punt operation time, the Hilltoppers were only 1 of 29 teams nationally and 1 of 2 C-USA clubs with zero blocked kicks. On the other hand, WKU was only 1 of 30 nationally and 1 of 3 C-USA clubs with three or more blocked kicks.
In 2020, Haggerty provided continued success after his record breaking debut season. The Australian threw 56 times for 2,560 yards and an average of 45.7 yards, which ranked him seventh in FBS and second in C-USA (UTSA’s Lucas Dean, 46 average, 0 yards). After transferring to the WKU this summer, the kicker Brayden Narveson won the starting kick position during fall camp and hasn’t looked back. The second in the redshirt made 13 of 14 field goal attempts and was perfect 27 of 27 on extra point tries in 2020, scoring 66 total points in 12 games. He was just 1 of 20 FBS kickers listed as a Lou Groza Award semi-finalist, the first Hilltopper to do so since Schwettman in 2015. Narveson and Haggerty were both voted All-CUSA Second Team by league coaches .
In 2021, due to WKU’s No. 2 offense in the country with 44.2 ppg, Haggerty hasn’t kicked enough for the Aussie to qualify for individual bests among other FBS punters. If he had, his average mark of 48.7 yards (on 33 punts) would have ranked fourth in the nation. Haggerty finished with 134 total punts in his college career and averaged 46.5 yards per kick, making him the all-time leader in C-USA and Hilltopper program history. Meanwhile, Narveson had 23 of 29 field goal attempts (79.3%) and 72 of 72 extra points for a total of 141 runs scored, which led all FBS kickers. Overall, he scored over nine points in 11 of 14 games and was voted to the All-CUSA Second Team for the second year in a row.
Arbuckle worked alongside former offensive coordinator Zach Kittley in the quarter room during At Bailey Zappe’s record-breaking 2021 season. Zappe finished the campaign completing 475 of 686 passes (69.2%) for 5,987 yards, with 62 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He led the nation in yards by 1,095 and touchdowns by 15; the closest was Bryce Young of Alabama with 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns. With 422 yards and six touchdowns in the Hilltoppers’ 59-38 win over App State in the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl, Zappe set new single-season FBS records, passing Texas Tech’s BJ Symons, who had 5,833 yards in 13 games in 2003 and LSU’s Joe Burrow, who had 60 touchdowns in 15 games in 2019.
From 2020-2021, the Hilltoppers went from 19.0 points per game to 44.2 (+25.2 increase leading the nation), scoring 2.0 offensive touchdowns per game to 5.4 (+3, 4) and 164.3 passing yards per game at 433.7 (+269.4). The 433.7 passing yards per game is the second-best number for FBS in the past five seasons (Washington State in 2019 averaged 437.2). In 14 games this season, Zappe had 90 passing plays for 20 or more yards, including 25 for touchdowns. Comparatively, in 12 games in 2020, the WKU had 15 “gross” passing plays including three for touchdowns.
Zappe was named the 2021 Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award winner. He was also named a finalist for the Manning Award, as well as a semi-finalist for the Davey O’Brien and Walter Camp Player of the Year Awards. He was a four-time American Conference Offensive Player of the Week and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player by all 14 head coaches. Arbuckle spent three of the previous four seasons working with Zappe and Kittley, while at Seminole High School in Texas for the other.
Crawford was named a finalist for the 2021 FootballScoop Wide Receivers Coach of the Year after leading a group of positions that helped Bailey Zappe break all-time NCAA single-season records for passing yards (5,967) and passing touchdowns (62). The main outside receivers of the Hilltoppers – Mitchell Tinley and Daewood Davis – both started all 14 games and combined for 130 catches for 2,165 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Tinsley’s 87 receptions, 1,402 yards, and 14 scores were the fourth most scored by a WKU wide receiver in a single campaign in the program’s 103-season history. His 14 touchdowns rank fifth on the FBS this season, while his 1,402 yards rank eighth and his 87 catches rank 16th. Meanwhile, Davis’ 763 yards and eight touchdowns ranked fourth on the Hilltoppers, while his 43 receptions were fourth. His 17.7 yards per catch led the team and ranked 14th in the FBS among players with 40+ catches.
Moreover, the trio of Craig Burt, Jr., Bin Ratzlaf and Dakota Thomas combined for 34 receptions for 437 yards and three scores. Overall, the position group had 164 catches for 2,602 yards and 22 touchdowns, averaging 15.9 yards per reception. Crawford began his coaching career in 2010 and spent the next 11 seasons coaching the offense in some of Georgia’s most prominent high school programs before joining the WKU in January 2021.
Lanford has coached the tight ends group for the past three seasons upon his return to The Hill. In 2019 and 2020, Joshua Simon totaled 63 receptions for 800 yards and seven touchdowns in his first two years at WKU. Simon had three catches for 73 yards and two touchdowns in the Hilltoppers’ 2021 season opener victory over UT Martin, but suffered a season-ending injury during the contest. Yet Lankford may have had Joey Beljan take on the starting role for the rest of the season and make a positive impact. The former walk-on from Holland, NJ had 14 receptions for 91 yards and six scores, while playing a crucial role in blocking plans.
The Georgia native originally spent three seasons with the WKU from 2014 to 2016. His time coincided with three consecutive bowl victories and two consecutive American Conference championships. Lankford assisted on the offensive line and helped develop one of the program’s all-time greatest offensive line groups in 2015 and 2016. Both of those units were also considered some of the best in the nation along with starters Forrest Lamp, Brandon Ray, Max Halpin, and Darrell. Williams is leading the charge.
Vestal joined the Hilltopper program as a defensive analyst ahead of the 2021 campaign and worked alongside the defensive coordinator Maurice Crum. This season, WKU led the nation with 63 pass breakups and 84 total passes defended. The defense’s 21 interceptions ranked second in FBS while the 31 total turnovers were third. The team ranked seventh in the nation with 15 forced fumbles and a plus-11 turnover margin. Overall, the defense’s 22 saves on fourth down (opponents were 19 of 41 overall) also led the nation.
The 20-year coaching veteran has been on the sidelines since graduating from Texas A&M in 2003. Vestal has spent time in many top-tier programs, including Power Five Schools in Texas, La Florida, Kansas and Maryland. Prior to coming to The Hill, he was at Rice University for four years as a Linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. During Vestal’s time in Houston, linebacker Blaze Alldredge became one of C-USA’s top defensemen before moving to Missouri for his final season of eligibility.
Three other full-time assistant coaches will return from last season: Crum, defensive line coach Kenny Baker and cornerbacks coach Keynodo Hudson. Two new signings for the Hilltoppers will be announced in the coming days.