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2021 MAC football Positional Previews: Western Michigan front seven

A healthier defense will improve in 2021, despite a key loss.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 12 Western Michigan at Ball State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After surrendering just 25.9 points per game in 2019, the Broncos defense took a step back in some games in 2020. Excluding the game against a developing Akron offense, Western Michigan’s defense did not have the 2020 campaign it envisioned, surrendering 38.4 points per game.

Coaches and players generally do not make excuses, but I do, when the situation calls for it, and I think injuries had a fair amount to do with the Broncos’ 2020 defensive performance in most games.

Multiple key defenders missed games or tried to play through obvious injuries in 2020. Tough guys, just not as effective. (No shade to EMU, who is a good offensive team in their own right, but WMU just did not look like itself when the Eagles dropped 53 points on them last year.)

The good news for the Broncos is that these key players should return healthy for fall 2021 and the defense will play better because of it. The bad news for the Broncos is that they need to overcome the loss of 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year LB Treshaun Hayward, who indicated he would transfer in the 2020 offseason.

Where Hayward may ultimately end up is unknown, as multiple reports in recent months have indicated Hayward will not attending Arizona, where he originally declared this past January, after all, leaving his status in a bit of a limbo. He is not listed on either the Arizona or WMU rosters as of publication.

As for who is expected to be on the roster for the 2021 season, we’ll start along the defensive line for the Broncos.


Defensive Line

The saying goes that “games are won and lost in the trenches.” and this is where WMU has seemingly assembled their defense for success, projecting to have someof the best offensive and defensive line units in the conference, hoping to ride that ideology to a good shot at the title in 2021.

The d-line will field a great mix of top-end talent and promising young players, so the d-line should have a great year if they can stay healthy and establish a bit of depth to give the starters some rest.

The Broncos’ line starts with two of best in the MAC in defensive tackle Ralph Holley and defensive end Ali Fayad, both of whom have a shot to be Sunday guys if they can put together strong fall campaigns.

Coming off a first-team, All-MAC selection in 2020, Holley has been a disruptive force with very good pass rush skills, logging 96 career tackles, 28 tackles for loss, and 14.5 sacks.

Fayad was a second-team All-MAC selection in 2019, but struggled through an injury-marred 2020 campaign, starting in only three games, and even then, at half-strength due to various injuries.

Fayad, one of the MAC’s best edge rushers, returns to the roster in 2021, with a career 37.5 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks, according to WMU’s online records. With a great 2021 campaign, Fayad could vault himself into the conversation as one of the MAC’s best sack artists since 2005, with names such as Larry English (31.5 sacks); Sutton Smith (30); Khalil Mack (28.5); Chris Jones (28); Tarell Basham (27); and Dan Bazuin (26.5.)

The Broncos also have promising young defensive tackles coming up the ranks, as well.

Redshirt sophomore Will McCabe, out for 2020 with an injury, should make a healthy return and was effective in his 13 appearances in 2019, registering 42 tackles. Sophomore Braden Fiske has appeared in 19 career games with 43 total tackles, 7 tackles for loss and 3 sacks.

Either Fiske, McCabe or both should be on track to earn All-MAC honors before their careers end, as their current career numbers and current status within the rotation project them to being key pieces, which usually bodes well for future honors.

Other promising players are redshirt freshman Marshawn Kneeland and redshirt sophomore Andre Carter, who will compete for rotational edge spots in camp. Both will compete for the starting spot and top reserve opposite Fayad.

Kneeland and Carter bring ideal size to the position, standing at approximately six-foot-four and 250 pounds. Like Fiske and McCabe, Kneeland and Carter have looked good early in their career, which bodes well for a high ceiling given their youth.

Kneeland was the 2019 co-scout team player of the year and a guy whose performance stood out to us in Week 1 of the 2020 season. Between McCabe, Fiske, Carter, and Kneeland, WMU’s future at d-line looks really bright.

The coaching staff will also look to round out the rotation with a few more guys.

Junior DT Ken Aguirre has appeared in double-digit career games and will get a chance to show what he can do in 2021. Aguirre plays with a great motor for a guy that is 290 pounds-he goes hard from snap to whistle every down.

Redshirt freshman DT Jack Sherwin should be healthy for fall and in the mix for some snaps.

Multiple three-star recruits, as tabulated by 247Sports, have the size to compete for early reps or redshirting status, including freshman DE Corey Walker (six-foot-six, 240 lbs.), DT Logan Wilson (six-foot-three, 280 lbs.) and DE Elijah Hawk (six-foot-four, 240 lbs.)

The Broncos lost a few key rotational guys for 2021, one to graduation and one to injury.

Key reserve DE Kailien Guillory has graduated and will not return in 2021. Guillory finishes his Bronco career with 32 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks.

East Carolina transfer senior lineman Hozey Haji-Badri was immediately eligible, but reportedly tore his ACL in spring ball and is out until 2022.


Linebackers

Treshaun Hayward’s loss will be felt on the field without question. Even to a casual fan, Hayward stood out as a playmaker, with 238 career tackles, including 142 in his 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year season.

Despite the loss of Hayward, the Broncos should put together an effective group this fall.

The group returns a familiar face in the middle in 2020 third-team All-MAC backer Corvin Moment, whose 18 career starts gives the Broncos a player to build the unit around.

The strongside linebacker will be manned by some familiar faces, but which faces those will be is yet to be determined. Zaire Barnes, who missed all 2020 with an injury, figures to be the guy to stand in the box, with lasts year’s SAM, AJ Thomas, moving back to free safety. However, last year’s starting free safety, Harrison Taylor, reportedly played some snaps at SAM in the spring and could see some time there in 2021.

The player who will start at weakside linebacker may be up for grabs or his name at least written in pencil on the early season roster.

2021 weakside LB candidate Ryan Selig is a guy who has worn some different hats with the Broncos early in his career. In fact, finding a guy like Selig on WMU’s roster can sometimes be a bit like playing “Where’s Waldo?” because players sometimes switch postions between seasons to fill needs and best match their skill sets and assignments (Forgive me for such a pun, but any opportunity to use Waldo Stadium’s name as a pun is too tempting.)

For instance, Wesley French started at d-line, moved to center in 2020, and now is likely your 2021 left tackle. Second-round NFL draft pick D’Wayne Eskridge started as a receiver, converted to defensive back, then went back to receiver.

Even now, the reworking continues apace. If you are looking for WR Dashon Bussell in 2021 and cannot find him on offense, check the defensive backfield, where he got some snaps last fall and this spring.

You might recall Selig catching a touchdown pass against Michigan State in 2019, but he transitioned to linebacker in 2020 and could be your stating weakside guy in 2021. More easily found can be the six-foot-three, 220-pound redshirt freshman Boone Bonnema has appeared in eight games as a Bronco and is one of the guys in the mix along with Selig.


Next week, we take a look at WMU’s secondary, where the Broncos return some All-MAC talent and have a shot at being on of the MACs better units in 2021.