Western Michigan's offense will have a new play caller this season -- second-year head coach Tim Lester is taking the reins after Kevin Johns left to be the OC at Texas Tech. Lester is thrilled to be calling plays again. "I don't think I would have been ready [last year]," Lester says. "The first four to five months of taking over this program, there's no way I would have been ready to install an offense."
Previewing Western Michigan Football's Offense for 2018
Get full team previews, schedules, scouting reports, conference predictions, and national rankings. Click here to buy a copy today or visit your local newsstand!
This could be a fun season to call plays for WMU's offense. The Broncos return a dozen players with starting experience, including junior quarterback Jon Wassink, who was lost for the season in Week 8 with a broken collarbone, amid a 5-3 start.
They also return two members of their heralded three-headed backfield, senior Jamauri Bogan and junior LeVante Bellamy. Bellamy is an explosive back when he's healthy. Both of his seasons at WMU have been cut short by injuries. Bogan enters the season with 2,563 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. He missed the end of 2017 with a foot injury.
They'll run behind an offensive line that returns four starters -- including All-MAC honorees John Keenoy (center) and Luke Juriga (right guard) -- though WMU must replace All-America left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. That responsibility is likely to fall on sophomore Jaylon Moore.
WMU returns plenty of experience at receiver, led by juniors D'Wayne Eskridge (506 yards) and Keishawn Watson (41 catches). Lester moved oversized wideout Giovanni Ricci to tight end, where "he can just eat and be himself," and, WMU is hoping, be a mismatch for linebackers and safeties. The Broncos also added help at this position following spring ball, as Michigan graduate transfer Drake Harris is set to join the team for 2018.
Previewing Western Michigan Football's Defense for 2018
WMU's secondary was slated to rank among the best in the MAC, even without the electrifying play of Darius Phillips. However, senior cornerback Sam Beal, the Broncos' best cover corner, entered the NFL's supplemental draft. Justin Tranquill, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 2 last season, gives WMU a physical playmaking presence at strong safety. Syracuse graduate transfer Juwan Dowels is expected to provide help right away in the absence of Beal.
WMU replaces all three starting linebackers, though Lester believes he's replacing them with "the fastest linebacking group I've had or seen," highlighted by outside backers Alex Grace and Drake Spears.
The interior defensive line is where WMU appears most vulnerable and inexperienced. "We're searching," Lester says.
Previewing Western Michigan Football's Specialists for 2018
WMU had maybe the oldest special teams unit in the country last year. Its punter, holder and kickoff specialist, Derrick Mitchell, was 30 years old. The Broncos might have the youngest group of specialists this year, with sophomore placekicker Josh Grant (15-of-23 field goals made in 2017) as the elder statesman. Touted true freshman Nick Mihalic is expected to take over at punter. The Broncos will miss Phillips in the return game. Watson is likely to handle punt return duties. But kick returns will be a "fun tryout in fall camp," Lester says.
By the end of last season, WMU had lost a whopping 21 players to season-ending injuries, including five safeties, five running backs and five receivers. "It started getting ridiculous," Lester says. It did, however, create a good dynamic entering this season -- an experienced roster, devoid of a large senior class. The Broncos have only nine seniors on a team with realistic designs on competing for a MAC championship, meaning this should be a two-year group.