Linebacker T.J. McCollum didn't begin his career as a Hilltopper, but the junior is now helping the Western Kentucky football program continue to reach new heights.
Since transferring from UAB after his redshirt freshman season in 2014, McCollum has become an integral part of the WKU defense. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker led the Hilltoppers with 106 tackles last fall. His 11.5 tackles for a loss were also best on the squad. He also recorded three sacks and an interception for a defense that helped the program win the Conference USA Championship and the defeat South Florida in the Miami Beach Bowl.
"It's a great feeling," McCollum said of being part of the building process.
"We are really building a foundation for this school," he said. "It's not just us, its the whole program, the whole school."
The Birmingham, Ala., native is now focused on helping place the next layer for the WKU program. Following weeks of fall camp and frequently working against the first team offense, the defense is ready to look across the line of scrimmage and see a true opponent.
"We are ready to hit another jersey," he told WKU Insider following Wednesday's practice. "We're tired of hitting each other, so we're getting fired up that it's getting closer to game week."
The defense returns 11 players that notched a start in 2015, while adding graduate transfers and a talented freshman class, so expectations continue to rise for the group.
"It's getting better everyday," he said, adding that "our defense is pretty good this year."
WKU opens the season at home on Thursday, Sept., 1 when it welcome Conference USA foe Rice to Houchens-Smith Stadium. The Tops rolled past the Owls 49-10 last fall, but McCollum says the team isn't underestimating its opening opponent.
"The past is the past," he said. "We never want to take any opponent for granted, no matter how bad their record was or how good they are. We want to play them like its our last."
WKU was projected to finish second in the C-USA East Division, with Rice slotted for third in the West.