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2017 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Western Michigan Broncos

Western Michigan hopes to continue its meteoric success after a 13-win season.

Western Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Western Michigan Broncos return from a 13-1 season and close game in the Cotton Bowl last year. Between then and now, we saw three members of that championship team drafted into the NFL, a head coach change, and a change in quarterbacks. The Broncos’ passing attack is still in progress, but should be ready by the start of the season. Rushing will be a strong suit this year with a deep stable of running backs and a stout set of offensive linemen. Add in an experienced defense and you have another championship-caliber team.


Five Players to Watch

Jarvion Franklin, #31 RB (Sr.)

Coming from a powerful string of running backs, Jarvion Franklin will be rotating snaps with Jamauri Bogan on a consistent basis. Both backs are outstanding and will put up unreal numbers this year. Despite both Franklin and Bogan being explosive runners, the running styles differ enough to only list one running back. Jamauri Bogan is known for making defenders miss, but he is prone to injuries. Jarvion Franklin took more snaps last year, earning over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. While he comes into this year a Senior, you can believe that there will be a tough battle for the primary running back slot. Keep an eye out for Franklin running through even more defenders this year, leading the Broncos again in rushing yards.

Darius Phillips, #4 CB/KR/PR (Sr.)

Darius Phillips is one of the most exciting players on the Bronco team this year. He is a talented defensive back with a knack for catching as many passes as the receivers he matches up against. His name may be in your mind from taking interceptions, kicks, and punts for long touchdowns. Last year, Phillips earned five touchdowns and 1,319 yards in combined returns. Since he transitioned three years ago from wide receiver to defensive back, he has improved each week. The only real way to improve Darius Phillips’ play as a returner is play awareness. Too many punt returns have been dead, but he tries to make a play out of nothing. Usually it harmlessly gets a short gain. Sometimes, he loses yards or takes a big hit. Despite this small aspect of his game, Phillips is still the undisputed leader of a very strong secondary unit, and is expected to have another stellar year defending against the passing attack.

Robert Spillane, #10 LB (Sr.)

Robert Spillane gave the Bronco faithful a scare over the summer by leaving and rejoining the team. As the leader of the full defensive unit, Spillane hopes to build on a huge season last year. His 111 tackles and 35 sacks are overshadowed somehow by his two signature plays. In the opening game against Northwestern, he forced a fumble to seal the game for Western Michigan. Another game was saved by Robert Spillane interception in the MAC Championship Game against Ohio. Spillane may be the most consistent player on the Bronco defense. He will be fun to watch, mostly from his opponents’ backfields.

Jon Wassink, #16 QB (R-So.)

Not as much is known about Jon Wassink, as he hasn’t had playing time yet. From his high school film, he looks to have a strong, accurate arm. While playing for Grand Rapids South Christian, Wassink showed quick decision-making and excellent play reading. He commanded an offense comparable to what WMU will be running this year all the way to two state championships. He established himself quickly into the starting quarterback role, and into a solid leadership role. The Broncos revolve around Wassink, and there is a lot of hype about his skills. This year, expect to see that athleticism but it will take a game or two for him to settle into his role.

D’Wayne Eskridge, #7 WR (So.)

This season will be a real test of the depth of Western Michigan’s wide receiver corps. Losing Corey Davis, Michael Henry, and Carrington Thompson to graduation left D’Wayne Eskridge some huge shoes to fill. Eskridge showed some serious speed in his freshman season, but only had 121 receiving yards and a touchdown to show for it. This season we get to see if his athleticism can translate into leadership and yardage. Expect to see him share passes with Keishawn Watson and Anton Curtis.


Can’t Miss Games

Sep 9 at Michigan State: Coming on the Broncos’ second week of the season, this game against the Michigan State Spartans promises to be as exciting as ever. Western Michigan is coming from a 13-win season last year, but has to get through a stout USC Trojans squad the week prior. Michigan State returns from a forgettable 3-9 season, but is always loaded with talent. The Spartans will be facing Bowling Green a week before, which will not do Western Michigan any favors. This game will most liely serve as a barometer to how the Broncos will fare for the remainder of the season. Expect a close, high-scoring game.

Sep 16 vs Idaho: Western Michigan opens the doors of Waldo Stadium first to the Idaho Vandals. Incidentally, this will also be the unveiling of the new and improved Buster Bronco mascot. The game itself should be another test for the Broncos on both sides of the football, but the key to this game is audience participation. Butts need to fill the seats for Western Michigan to have an advantage. Idaho is fresh off a successful 9-4 season including a bowl win against Colorado State. With about half of their starters returning on either side of the ball, the Vandals will give the Broncos quite a run for their money. This game will show who the Broncos’ real play-makers are.

Nov 15 at Northern Illinois: The gauntlet for the MAC West is a grueling one and this year will not be an exception. Every game in the MAC is a must-win, especially the last three games. The Northern Illinois Huskies return from an unusually under-performing 5-7 season. The Huskies will be returning with a stout defense looking for redemption and an offense with talented new faces. Make no mistake, every possession will count for each team. This game will be fun to watch.

Nov 24 at Toledo: Another year, another key match-up against powerhouse Toledo Rockets. Returning most of the starters from last year, Toledo promises to be a fierce competitor for MAC West dominance. If history has taught us anything, the MAC West will be determined one way or another with this game. Both teams will be pulling out all the stops to sneak away with the win. Expect a very close affair and a half-dozen top-10 worthy highlights.


Three Markers of Success

Start the season winning: Success throughout the season verges on strong out-of-conference play. Starting out on the road in Los Angeles, CA, to take on a ranked USC will be the toughest test. And they're up first. If the Broncos can manage a win, then the remaining schedule will be relatively easy. If not, they need to brush it off and prepare for Michigan State in East Lansing. Here is where the winning could start. Michigan State showed flaws last year, but they aren't the same team as last year. The Broncos could pick up a win here. The last two games before MAC play are against Idaho and Wagner, both at home. Both are winnable games. By my count, if Western Michigan can enter MACtion at 2-2, they'll be on par for the rest of the season. Any worse and it may be time to worry. But if they earn 3 or 4 wins, it could be a great season.

Fill the stands: Winning isn't everything, but it is very nice. In fact, winning will help with the fanbase. Western Michigan has maintained a strong turnout in Waldo Stadium in the past three years. If WMU is to be successful, they need a strong showing of fans to help cheer them to victory. Last year, the Broncos benefited from having College Gameday coming to town, which rejuvenated the spirit of WMU football. The Kalamazoo faithful averaged about 23,800 fans per game, with the peak attendance last year just over 28,000. By my tally, that puts Waldo Stadium averages about 6,400 empty seats per game. Before I sound any more like a ticket salesman, I urge you to support your local team, especially if they just finished a historic season nationally ranked.

Finish the tough final stretch: As the season draws on, the race to the MAC Championship Game draws closer. Every game is important. Last year, Western entered their last game at 11-0 and still had to beat Toledo to win the MAC West. Expect another tight race between 3-4 teams in the MAC West. The Broncos must play strong each week to win the division. Western Michigan doesn’t have a full bye week this year, with the longest break being 11 days instead of two weeks. Incidentally, the 11-day break also separates the schedule into the final stretch of decisive games.


Two Things to Watch For

Struggling Passing Attack

When Western Michigan takes the field on Sept. 2nd, they will be looking to set up the passing game immediately. Look for the Broncos to start with short passes and play action to build confidence in passing, and to keep Wassink calm in the pocket. That is not to say there won’t be deep shots, because there will be. If Western Michigan can get comfortable in the passing game, there will be almost nothing in their way of success this year.

Coaching Staff Turnover

This year sees Tim Lester at the reins of the Bronco football team. As with any change in leadership, he brings in his own group of trusted assistant coaches. Lester is joined by offensive coordinator Kevin Johns and defensive coordinator Tim Daoust. Based on reports on social media, the team has welcomed the changes. “Let’s Ride” and “We Will Reign” are catching on in the locker room and chat rooms. As the season progresses, we will see if the players continue to support Tim Lester. If they cannot, it will be a long 12 weeks. If the Broncos support Lester and each other, expect to see a MAC Championship run.


Bold Prediction

Qualified Success: I would not be doing my job if I didn’t mention that if Western Michigan goes on another 13-win streak, a playoff slot could open up this year. Realistically, I would expect a solid 9- or 10-win season. The Broncos will lose to a strong USC team and possibly Michigan State. The other two non-conference games are winnable. When Western Michigan hits conference play, every game has the potential for a loss. I see a return trip to Detroit for Western Michigan, even if Toledo is the favorite.

My prediction: 10-4 (7-2 MAC), MAC Runner-up, and winning another bowl game.