P.J. Fleck orchestrated quite the turnaround at Western Michigan last season. The Broncos won eight games in 2014, after picking up just one victory in Fleck's 2013 rookie campaign. Now the next step for this Broncos program is to maintain that success and emerge as a legitimate contender in the MAC West. Fleck appears to have the horses to possibly do that this fall, with 16 starters returning and his staff's efforts on the recruiting trail ready to pay dividends on the field.
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Previewing Western Michigan’s Offense for 2015
Western Michigan’s players were “finally able to touch faith” last season, third-year coach P.J. Fleck says, after living on faith alone during the first year-and-a-half he was at the helm. The Broncos’ seven-game improvement in 2014 took place in large part because their quarterback, Zach Terrell, and offensive line were surprisingly effective, and freshman running back Jarvion Franklin arrived on campus and dazzled. Nine starters return from an offense that ranked second in the MAC in scoring (33.8 ppg). That includes Terrell, Franklin, all three starting wideouts and three offensive linemen.
Terrell took hold of the offense during his sophomore season. He passed for 3,443 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, leading the MAC in passing efficiency. Terrell’s two dynamic targets from a year ago are again at his disposal, juniors Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman. Davis led the MAC in receiving yards (1,408), Braverman in receptions (86).
Franklin is a shifty 6'0", 220-pound back with deceptive speed. He rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns — fourth-most in college football last season. The reigning MAC Offensive Player of the Year should spend his sophomore year running behind a mostly seasoned offensive line, including seniors James Kristof and Willie Beavers at left guard and tackle, respectively. WMU intends to start a true freshman at center, John Keenoy, an early enrollee who surprised coaches with his readiness during the spring. Sophomore right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, entering his first year as a full-time starter, might be the best of the group.
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Previewing Western Michigan’s Defense for 2015
The Broncos’ defense has a few more holes to plug. All-MAC defensive backs Justin Currie and Donald Celiscar and nose tackle Richard Ash (a graduate transfer from Michigan) were staples of a defense that saw its points allowed drop from 35.4 in 2013 to 24.9 in ’14.
Middle linebacker Grant DePalma tallied 102 tackles, benefiting from the work of Ash and his cohorts up front. Two starters return on the line, including tackle Cleveland Smith (5.5 sacks), but “a lot of guys that haven’t seen a lot of playing time need to get in there and go,” Fleck says.
WMU’s secondary is still expected to be the strength of this unit. Two starters return on the back end — all-league corner Ronald Zamort (tied for the MAC lead in pass breakups last season) and safety Rontavious Atkins. The most intriguing piece is sophomore Darius Phillips, the fastest player on the team. Phillips is being groomed to play both corner and wideout. He also led the MAC in kickoff return average last season (26.4 ypr).
Previewing Western Michigan’s Specialists for 2015
Senior kicker Andrew Haldeman has made 30-of-37 field goals the last two years, while classmate J. Schroeder averaged a career-best 42.8 yards per punt last season. The best story among this crew, however, is kickoff specialist Derrick Mitchell, a 28-year-old once-touted minor league baseball prospect who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2005. Mitchell is only six years younger than Fleck.
WMU won eight games in 2014, but “we probably won more games on paper than what kind of football team we actually had,” Fleck says. “We kind of got on a roll.” This year’s team might be better and win less. The schedule is unforgiving. In an apparent effort to win the Big Ten’s East Division, the Broncos get Michigan State and Ohio State in September, opening with the Spartans in Kalamazoo. They close with midweek road games at division rivals Northern Illinois and Toledo, both of which Fleck has yet to beat. “We’ve done all the work to earn expectations,” Fleck says. Meeting them will be a bear.