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Transfers have become WKU staple

Over the last five seasons, the Western Kentucky University football program has made a habit of scouring the NCAA transfer portal for talent — and, with the Hilltoppers’ sustained success, that formula won’t change in 2024.

As WKU enters its sixth year under head coach Tyson Helton, the Hilltoppers find themselves riding a wave of momentum. Since 2019, they have gone 40-26 with only one losing season and have appeared in five consecutive bowl games.

Although the recruiting rankings hasn’t always reflected on-field results — Western hasn’t been ranked higher than 90th on the recruiting trail nationally in the last four years — Helton and his staff have regularly focused on bringing in transfers to round out their classes and fill the gaps.

WKU is 91st overall in recruiting heading into the fall but will also bring in 19 student-athletes that give the Hilltoppers the 70th-ranked transfer class in the nation, according to 247Sports. Before that, Western’s incoming transfers have been ranked lower than 63rd only once in the past half-decade.

TJ Finley, a three-star quarterback, is expected to compete for the starting job after throwing for 3,439 yards and 24 touchdowns last season at Texas State.

Other transfers include three running backs like three-star rushers Jalen Hampton (Elon) and Ta’ron Keith (Bowling Green State), a trio of three-star safeties in Jai Eugene Jr. (Tulane), Keyshawn Swanson (Troy) and Demarko Williams (Ole Miss), and a pair of three-star wide receivers with Bryce Childress (Troy) and Kisean Johnson (Alabama State).

WKU’s track record with transfers speaks for itself, and Helton hopes the trend continues.

For two seasons, Austin Reed led the Hilltoppers under center after joining them from Division II West Florida. He was recently signed by the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

Before Reed, Bailey Zappe quarterbacked Western to historic passing performances after a prolific career at FCS Houston Baptist. Now, he’s suiting up for the New England Patriots.

Previous starting WKU signal-callers under Helton also include Tyrrell Pigrome (Maryland) and Ty Storey (Arkansas).

Western’s leading rushers for the past two seasons also came from other programs: Elijah Young (Missouri) and Davion Ervin-Poindexter (Indiana). Young is set to return for his second go-around in 2024.

Helton has become accustomed to navigating the transfer portal and everything that comes with it.

“Everybody usually lands by the first week of June, because that’s when summer training starts all across the country,” he said following the Hilltoppers’ spring showcase. “... It’s wide open all the way until you hit June.”