P.J. Fleck is now in Minnesota, but that’s not the only piece Western Michigan must replace from its 13-1 MAC title-winning team whose only loss came to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. The Broncos also will have to find a new No. 1 target and quarterback, but first-year head coach Tim Lester has one a loaded backfield and veteran offensive line to lean on. The defense is a little more intact and should be led by a rock-solid secondary and strong linebacking corps. Western Michigan won’t go undefeated again, but that doesn’t mean these Broncos will cede their league title without a fight.
Previewing Western Michigan Football’s Offense for 2017
Western Michigan’s passing game will undoubtedly take a step back this season, having lost All-America wideout Corey Davis and four-year starting quarterback Zach Terrell. But for a team breaking in a new QB and three new starting wideouts — along with a new coaching staff — the situation offensively couldn’t be better.
The Broncos return three starters on the offensive line, their run-blocking veteran tight end and a punishing and diverse backfield duo in Jarvion Franklin (1,353 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Jamauri Bogan (923, eight TDs). Expect converted receiver LeVante Bellamy to be featured running the ball as well in an offense that first-year head coach Tim Lester says won’t change much schematically from what the Broncos ran under P.J. Fleck.
WMU’s high hopes for its ground game change its needs at quarterback, which was a two-man competition between junior Tom Flacco — the brother of Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco — and sophomore Jon Wassink. However, Flacco decided to transfer over the summer, leaving Wassink as the favorite to take the first snap.
Whoever wins the gig will be throwing to a group of receivers that has just 19 career catches among them — 18 of them by sophomore D’Wayne Eskridge. “He has legit speed. He can roll,” Lester says of Eskridge.
Previewing Western Michigan Football’s Defense for 2017
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Among the reasons WMU’s young receivers struggled in spring practice is the group of defensive backs lined up across from them. Senior corner Darius Phillips and sophomore safety Justin Tranquill headline an experienced and talented crew. In front of them is a linebacking corps that might be just as strong, especially with the return of leading tackler and senior middle linebacker Robert Spillane, who left the program intending to transfer after Fleck’s departure but had a change of heart in April. He’s flanked on the strong side by senior Asantay Brown, who led the Broncos in solo stops last season.
WMU lost its top pass rusher in Keion Adams, but Lester is hoping junior Eric Assoua can fill that role at defensive end after a “phenomenal spring.” Andre Turner and Nick Matich, who missed all of last season with an injury, give WMU experience in the interior.
Previewing Western Michigan Football’s Specialists for 2017
Phillips is among the most dangerous return men in the country on both punts and kickoffs. He returned one of each for a touchdown last season. “Those are opportunities to get him the ball. Every time we get him the ball, something good happens,” Lester says. Thirty-year-old junior punter Derrick Mitchell is back as well — although he’ll miss a day early in fall camp to get married. Josh Grant, a true freshman out of Texas, is expected to be the Broncos’ kicker, replacing Butch Hampton, who set a MAC record for points as a freshman last season before leaving the program to play college soccer.
This is Lester’s dream job. He starred as a quarterback at WMU in the late 1990s, later briefly coached QBs at the school under Bill Cubit and applied for the job in 2012, when Fleck got it. Lester understands the program, the MAC and the challenges ahead. This is a league known for bringing success back down to earth. It’s also a fan base that just experienced the greatest year in school history and doesn’t want to go back to reality. Lester inherits a roster that had completely bought into his predecessor. As long as the players also buy in to him, there’s enough talent to compete for another league title in 2017.
National Ranking: 83
MAC West Prediction: 2
(Jarvion Franklin photo courtesy of Getty Images)