It's notable that after accepting the head coach position for the Western Kentucky University football program last November, Tyson Helton ultimately decided to retain Hilltopper defensive coordinator Clayton White and the core of the defensive staff.

It doesn't always work out that way.

Nonetheless, after conducting extensive interviews with defensive coaches and returning defensive players, Helton decided that the train was traveling in the right direction on that side of the line of scrimmage.

Helton addressed the subject during the team's media day at the start of fall camp.

"(Retaining) the defensive coaching staff has been invaluable," said Helton, whose Hilltoppers open the 2019 season on Aug. 29 at home against Central Arkansas. "I am thoroughly impressed with this staff. Every single player talked highly about their coaches.

"There are a lot of things our defense wants to accomplish this season, and it's my belief that we have the players and coaching staff needed to get the job done in a great way."

WKU's defense performed admirably in a team scrimmage on Saturday -- fueling growing speculation that the Hilltoppers' defense will be significantly improved this season.

While complimentary of his unit's performance, White -- now in his third season as the Hilltopper DC -- was not about to let the cart get in front of the horse.

"To me, fall camp is about adversity and being able to get up every day and do the same thing over and over again," White said. "It's about having the mental toughness to erase everything and come back to work, and that's all we're doing right now.

"We've just been trying to stay game ready. I know we are going against the offense every day, but it's not us against them -- we're pulling together."

"Coach (Helton) does a fantastic job of keeping things together, understanding that you give the defense credit when they deserve it and give the offense credit when they deserve it, and that's keeping it competitive."

Linebackers coach Maurice Crum, also in his third season at Western, believes the defense is beginning to move past the basic fundamentals and comprehend what can be accomplished at a much higher level.

"Anytime you are comfortable in something, you feel a lot better doing it," Crum said, alluding to the defense being in the third year with the same scheme. "I don't necessarily have to focus on so much of the details, we're working with a broader picture -- it's not A-B-C ball, we're at D-E and F now.

"I think the main thing is every day we are coming in, competing and trying to become leaders and better men. I have a vision for the (linebackers) and they've all bought in -- the main thing is to be playmakers, and they're competing to make those plays."

Last season, of course, there were more bad moments than good during the Hilltoppers' tepid 3-9 season -- the second and last for head coach Mike Sanford, who was subsequently dismissed after a 9-16 run.

WKU surrendered an average of 27.8 points, 172.8 rushing yards, 248.8 passing yards and 421.6 total yards per game in 2018. Only once, however, did the team surrender 40 points in a game.

Not awful numbers, in retrospect.

Significantly less compelling was Western's performance in the second half of games in 2018, when they were outscored 191-92.

At crunch time, then, they were far from great.

And great is what the Hilltoppers -- less than three years removed from consecutive Conference USA championships -- are in the hunt for this time around.

It's an everyday process to become such, according to Da'Corian Darden, a gifted senior defensive back from nearby Russellville High School who registered 71 tackles last season.

"We still have to grind," Darden said. "We still have to keep making plays, we still have to keep flying around and help everyone get their game better."

The Hilltopper D? It's getting there.

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