Western Michigan enters year three of the Tim Lester era with plenty of returning talent and hope. The Broncos have crashed in two-straight Novembers after solid midseason runs, causing them to slide out of MAC championship contention.
Year three will be a benchmark year for Lester after two average seasons in Kalamazoo. Nearly the entire defense is back, and the offense will rely on seasoned playmakers Jon Wassink and LeVante Bellamy. Here are the storylines which will dictate the 2019 Western Michigan football season.
What is this team’s potential with a healthy Wassink?
Jon Wassink is an upper echelon MAC quarterback.
Through two seasons as a starter, the 6’2” passer has completed 62.8% of his passes and thrown 30 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions. However, we’ve yet to see Western Michigan play an entire season with Wassink due to season ending injuries in consecutive Octobers. First, it was the collarbone, then, it was the right ankle.
Injuries have prevented Wassink from playing in the final month of the season, and Western Michigan has been a combined 2-7 following his injuries compared to 11-5 when he completes a game. Wassink was a great screen passer and tough power runner as a sophomore. During his junior season, he gained greater touch on his deep throws, as demonstrated in a 379-yard outing in 19 completions against Syracuse last August.
Wassink’s arm has proved pivotal in several tough-fought wins over the years. In Oxford last October, Wassink’s 439 yards and five touchdowns were required for the Broncos to complete a comeback and edge Miami (OH) by one point.
Prior to both Wassink injuries, Western Michigan stood among the MAC contenders. With plenty of personnel remaining in Kalamazoo, Wassink’s healthy may be the key factor to the Broncos’ performance in 2019. And if he plays each game at a high level, Western Michigan could surprisingly win nine games or reclaim the MAC for the first time since P.J. Fleck’s final season.
Which skill position player makes up for the transfers?
Western Michigan lost starting wide receivers Jayden Reed and Keishawn Watson as transfers to Michigan State and Appalachian State, respectively.
Losing depth at receiver hurts, but the Broncos luckily retain their most consistent wideout over the past few years, D’Wayne Eskridge. Outside of Eskridge, Jaylen Hall is Western Michigan’s leading wide receiver out of all returning players. Hall caught 11 passes for 170 yards last season, but with Reed, the 2018 Freshman All-American, gone from one of the starting sports, expect Hall to see increases across the board in all of his stats.
Outside of Hall, Wake Forest grad transfer Cortez Lewis has the potential to damage opposing secondaries. Lewis led all Wake Forest athletes in receptions and receiving yards in 2015, and his presence on the depth chart should make Wassink’s job easier.
As for running backs, LeVante Bellamy is the certain starter. After cycling through Bellamy, Jamauri Bogan, and Jarvion Franklin in a three-back tandem over the past few seasons, it looks like Western Michigan has finally reduced to one, heavy-usage running back.
That is, unless, a newcomer steps up in the wake of Bogan’s graduation and Chase Brown’s transfer. By losing Bogan and Brown, Western Michigan loses 1,116 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns from last season. Outside of Davon Tucker, who suffered a terrifying injury on a kickoff last August, no running back on the roster has fielded a single carry. Bellamy, a Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch list member, should work his magic for another 1,000-yard season, but Western Michigan requires a heavy dose of rushing and having reliable secondary and tertiary backs is vital to the program’s success.
Does experience improve Western Michigan’s defense?
Drake Spears, Alex Grace, Justin Tranquill, Stefan Claiborne, and all the most valuable pieces in Western Michigan’s 2018 defense are back for another season of Bronco football.
The defense allowed 34.5 points per game last season to rank 106th in the country. The pass defense was slightly above average, while the run defense fell below the FBS median in yards allowed per game. Western Michigan allowed its opponent to score 42 or more points in six of its 13 contests. While those are nowhere close to UConn numbers, the Broncos’ inability to stop some of the best offenses in the conference was concerning.
Even against lesser competition such as 3-9 Bowling Green and 4-8 Ball State, Western Michigan allowed 35 and 42 points, respectively, forcing loads of pressure onto the offense to produce points at a rapid rate.
Western Michigan fired defensive coordinator Tim Daoust one day after allowing 42 to Ball State and promoted Lou Esposito to the same position in January. With a year of experience under most of the defense and a new man in charge, the amount of improvement of this Broncos’ unit is one of the team’s defining factors in 2019.
Are the Broncos contenders?
This is the simplest question on here, but it’s the most important one.
Western Michigan can sometimes seem like a coin flip. This same team, albeit with a backup quarterback, lost to Ball State and followed it up with a win over Northern Illinois one week later. Results like these make the Broncos a tough team to read, and there seems to be a high level of uncertainty surrounding this team heading into the new season.
Health is certainly a question, as Western Michigan’s greatest stars all have serious injury histories. Wassink, Bellamy, and Tranquill have each had a pair of season-ending injuries while in Kalamazoo and their availability and leadership are of utmost importance to this team. Also, the defense can be concerning as well after failing to stop most of the talented offenses it faced last season. There’s one certainty, and that’s the fact that Western Michigan retains championship-caliber talent on the offensive end.
With smart play-calling and a solid defense, there’s no reason this team shouldn’t be in the mix for a trip to Detroit in late November.