The three years following Western Michigan’s climactic 2016 Cotton Bowl season can best be described as average. While the Broncos continue to field a respectable football team year after year, the magic that emanated within the program from that 2016 season fizzles away with each passing 6-loss season.
In all three go-arounds of the Tim Lester era, the Broncos have flirted with a .500 record while still awaiting their return to the MAC Championship. But not all is dreary within the confines of Kalamazoo — Western Michigan has been a consistently solid program in the conference during Lester’s tenure. The Broncos have compiled a 14-10 record in league play since 2017 and have not suffered through a single losing season since the BCS era.
A load of senior talent has departed from the team, but in this shortened season where anything is on the table, Western Michigan aims to reshuffle its cards break out of adequacy. In a wide open MAC West with six realistic contenders, a spot on the mountaintop waits to be inhabited.
Western Michigan was probably struck harder by graduating seniors more than any other program in the conference. The Broncos were a veteran-led team in 2019, headlined by MAC Offensive Player of the Year recipient LeVante Bellamy. The running back with sub 4.30 40-yard dash speed was the focal point of the Broncos offense a season ago. Bellamy tied for the lead in FBS rushing touchdowns and ranked 10th in the country in rushing yards in his dominant final run in Kalamazoo.
Also departed from the program is three-year starting quarterback Jon Wassink. After two injury-shortened seasons, Wassink finally enjoyed a season where he started all 13 games for the Broncos. While healthy, he performed in the upper-tier of MAC quarterbacks, firing 50 touchdowns to just 18 interceptions on a 61.1 percent completion rate. Wassink passed for over 3,000 yards as a senior and added over 300 on the ground, and Western Michigan must replace that production this season.
Tight end Giovanni Ricci is another key cog on offense the team will miss greatly. As a top 10 finisher in receptions, yards, and touchdowns among tight ends last year, Ricci was a reliable threat in short yardage and red zone situations. Another one of Wassink’s notable targets, Keith Mixon Jr. — the team’s primary return specialist in 2019 — has also graduated onto newer waters. Lastly, center Luka Juriga chalked up three All-MAC selections as the Broncos’ top offensive lineman last season. After four seasons as a starter, Juriga was one of the final inklings of the P.J. Fleck era, and his departure signals how well-acquainted Western Michigan is into the Lester’s tenure.
Defensively, Western Michigan lost its second and third leading tacklers from last year. Outside linebacker Drake Spears and strong safety Justin Tranquill both registered over 80 tackles and two interceptions as seniors, and the Broncos will have to fill those voids with talented hitters going forward.
The successor to Wassink will be redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby. Eleby experienced ample game action as a true freshman in 2018 despite not making a single appearance in 2019. He started four games two years ago including Western Michigan’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl loss to BYU. Eleby didn’t test the deep ball much but he was a very accurate quarterback on slant routes and checkdowns, completing nearly 63 percent of attempts.
His career numbers in five outings include four touchdowns and three interceptions. Other than increasing the touchdown-to-interception ratio, one area Eleby will seek improvement on as a full-time starter is mobility. Even with three career rushing touchdowns, he has a net negative rushing total as a Bronco due to sack yardage. Without Bellamy and Wassink on the roster, Western Michigan will need to replace a significant portion of its successful running game from 2019.
The backfield will consist of two running backs vying for the starting spot. One is sophomore Sean Tyler, who rose to prominence after posting 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the Georgia State defense last September — in only six attempts. With Bellamy remaining relatively healthy and Davon Tucker stepping up as the secondary back, Tyler didn’t take too many handoffs. On one occasion, he received more than 10 in a 17-carry, 85-yard performance against Bowling Green, but his numbers should amplify in 2020.
Also in the backfield is Nevada graduate transfer Jaxson Kincaide. He starred for the Wolf Pack as a freshman in 2016 with 334 rushing yards and three touchdowns, but his production dwindled once Jay Norvell took over the following year. After taking a redshirt last fall, Kincaide hopes to get back on track after transitioning from the Mountain West to the MAC.
While Western Michigan’s offense lost Mixon and Ricci from the tight end spot, the majority of its receiving group returns for 2020, and the wide receiver room should rival Central Michigan and Miami (OH) for the best in the conference. Skyy Moore landed a First Team All-MAC appearance as a freshman, becoming the first Bronco to attain that honor since Corey Davis. He racked up 804 yards receiving on 52 receptions, establishing himself as a Biletnikoff Award watch list candidate entering 2020. Moore lines up with fellow sophomores DaShon Bussell and Corey Crooms (39 combined receptions in 2019) and junior Jaylen Hall in a young, but experienced receiving corps.
Additionally, expect a comeback campaign from D’Wayne Eskridge at wide receiver. Eskridge is one of the few remnants of the 2016 Cotton Bowl team, but he flipped positions in 2019. Although he continued to line up for offensive snaps, he focused on his starting cornerback role. Eskridge suffered a season-ending clavicle injury against Syracuse last September while hauling in a deep ball as a receiver, a position he excelled at with a team-high 776 yards on 20.4 yards per reception in 2018.
The passing game should receive a considerable boost from a protection standpoint when looking at the left side of the offensive line. Two Second Team All-MAC selections man the trenches, left tackle Jaylon Moore and left guard Mike Caliendo. At center to replace Juriga, Western Michigan will transfer Wesley French from defensive line back to offensive line and assume the starting role. All five projected Western Michigan linemen are redshirt seniors, so there should be no lack of familiarity of the system on the 5-man unit this fall.
Western Michigan fielded one of the best defenses in the conference in 2019 with the second ranked scoring defense in the conference and the top in the MAC West, allowing just 25.9 points per game. The Broncos specialized in takeaways and recorded more turnovers per game than every team in the conference with the exception of Ball State.
Not only did Western Michigan’s 2019 roster feature the MAC Offensive Player of the Year, but the Broncos held that honor on the defensive side as well. MIKE linebacker Treshaun Hayward was a tackling machine. As a junior and in his first full year as a starter, Hayward established himself as one of the nation’s premier run stoppers. He finished third in the FBS in total tackles by collecting 142 ball carriers. His 11 tackles for loss also stood among the top 10 ranks in the MAC. Hayward recorded seven or more tackles in 12 games last season, maxing out with an 18-tackle day against Eastern Michigan in his hometown of Ypsilanti, MI.
Hayward tied defensive end Ali Fayad and defensive tackle Ralph Holley for the team lead in sacks with 4.5. Fayad and Holley return to the Broncos’ experienced defensive line. Just like Hayward enjoyed a breakout season last fall, an emerging candidate in that category this year is defensive end Andre Carter. In only nine games, Carter managed to record four sacks and seven tackles for loss. With the trio of Fayad, Holley, and Carter returning with 13.5 combined sacks a year ago, Western Michigan is a realistic threat to have the MAC West’s top pass rush once again.
Western Michigan may have a veteran defensive line, but there is youth on either side of Hayward in the linebacking corps. Outside linebacker Zaire Barnes was a projected starter, but he will miss the season with a knee injury. Seth Berry of The Western Herald reports that the Broncos will transition strong safety A.J. Thomas to SAM linebacker in response to Barnes’ injury. Corvin Moment started 12 games in 2018, missed the majority of 2019, and played in the First Responder Bowl last December. He’ll be in the mix to claim the other linebacker spot to complete the trio.
With Thomas moving away from safety, the Broncos will nearly experience a complete overhaul in the starting secondary. Cornerback Patrick Lupro finished first in interceptions and pass breakups a year ago, as well as fifth in tackles, and the junior will be tasked with guarding some of the best receivers in the conference. To add depth to the rest of the secondary, Western Michigan received a nice boost from the grad transfer market from the Steel City. Former Pitt Panthers cornerback Therran Coleman and safety Brice Garner have both moved west to Kalamazoo to finish their collegiate careers.
And don’t forget the Paul Hornung Award watchlist candidate, which is rewarded to the most versatile player in the nation. D’Wayne Eskridge has four games of starting experience at cornerback and his versatility will allow him to effectively swap back-and-forth between the two units in his senior season.
Western Michigan didn’t fancy field goal kicking last year. The Broncos’ aversion to kicking was great enough to the point where they elected to go for a 4th and 3 with 31 seconds remaining in the First Responder Bowl, in opposition to kicking a 47-yard field goal. Yes, unfavorable wind was a factor, but after Western Michigan missed the 4th down conversion, WKU kicked the game-winning field goal on the other side — leaving questions of what-if. Special teams directly changed the outcome of Western Michigan’s 2019 season, and the Broncos must gain more trust in the unit going forward.
Using two different kickers (Thiago Kapps and Gavin Peddie), Western Michigan converted on 10-of-17 field goals (58.8%) last fall. From 40+ yards out, the Broncos finished 1-of-4 with the longest kick standing at 45 yards. Kapps handled most kicking duties by sinking 10-of-15, but Peddie is also 10-of-15 in his Bronco career. There is an ongoing kicker competition between the two, but the starting punter remains unquestionable. Nick Mihalic booted a fair share of 50+ yard punts as a sophomore, connecting on three punts of 57 yards or great in his last four outings.
Western Michigan schedule
- Wed, Nov. 4: Western Michigan at Akron
- Wed, Nov. 11: Toledo at Western Michigan
- Wed, Nov. 18: Western Michigan at Central Michigan
- Sat, Nov. 28: Northern Illinois at Western Michigan
- Sat, Dec. 5: Eastern Michigan at Western Michigan
- Sat, Dec. 12: Western Michigan at Ball State
- Fri, Dec. 18: MAC Championship Game at Ford Field in Detroit, MI
Every MAC West team seems destined to finish between 2-4 and 4-2 this season due to the sheer parity which exists within the division.
Western Michigan enters without the comfort of its starting quarterback and starting running back from the past few years, so the new-look offense will have a growing phase. Luckily, having a deep playmaking group of wide receivers increases the home-run play potential of the offense. Defensively, the Broncos should have no problem controlling the line of scrimmage with a powerful group of defensive linemen and tackling machine Treshaun Hayward. Some of the larger question marks linger in the secondary and in the kicking game, and those will be interesting areas to watch develop.
The great news for Western Michigan is that it drew Akron during the opening week, which features each team’s sole divisional crossover matchup. The Zips have lost 17 consecutive matchups and can be the perfect tune-up opponent for the Broncos to get settled into 2020. Everything else on the schedule is essentially a toss-up. A 3-3 record seems realistic for Western Michigan this season, and the team will sit on pins and needles in December to see if there are enough bowl games in operation for a postseason selection.