WMU finished in second place in the MAC West in 2020 by the slimmest of margins, when it lost the season finale in heartbreaking fashion to eventual MAC champion Ball State by a final score of 30-27. Broncos head coach Tim Lester explained that a significant factor in the Ball State loss was defensive depth issues, citing the loss of Broncos defender A.J. Thomas to injury as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back.’
It’s never a good feeling to live on the edge, and losing to a team expected to finish near the bottom of the division in the preseason by three points, in a game that could have secured WMU a trip to Detroit, was yet another heartbreak for Bronco fans, leaving many to wonder if they are on the right path.
To avoid a similar fate in 2021, WMU got to work this spring looking to bolster its defensive depth through the transfer portal, working back to health, and building versatility by repping some defensive players at other position groups.
We take a look at WMU’s progress heading into fall camp, starting with cornerback.
WMU’s spring strategy to create defensive depth will be tested early with the recent loss of All-MAC corner Patrick Lupro, who will reportedly miss 2021 to focus on academics. Lupro appeared in 26 games with the Broncos, with 104 career tackles, 3 interceptions, and 11 passes defensed.
With Lupro unavailable this year, one corner spot will likely be manned by 2019 transfer Therran Coleman, who appeared in 34 career games with the Pittsburgh Panthers on special teams and as the nickel defender before joining the Broncos. Coleman sat out the 2020 WMU campaign with an injury but is reportedly ready to return this fall.
The other corner is going to come down to fall competition, with the following top candidates.
Similar to the move of WR D’Wayne Eskridge to defense a few years back, the Broncos switched redshirt sophomore DaShon Bussell from WR to corner for the 2021 season, with Bussell seeing reps with the defense this spring.
Bussell caught 27 passes for 445 yards and 2 scores in 2019. The Broncos brought in WR Bryce Nunnelly via the transfer portal to help offset the loss of Bussell (and Eskridge).
Senior Dorian Jackson transferred from Saint Francis (FCS) after 2021 spring ball and should compete for a spot. Jackson earned first-team All-Northeast Conference honors in 2019 with a strong performance, including 16 PBU’s.
Senior Calin Crawford or redshirt freshman Keith Jones Jr. will also get a shot to show what they can do in 2021, with both starting three games each last season.
Bricen Garner returns for the 2021 season, manning the strong safety spot. Garner, a former transfer from Pitt, figures to be a player on the rise, having earned 2020 first-team All-MAC honors in his first season as a Bronco— without the benefit of a full spring practice schedule. Garner should only improve in the Broncos’ system with a full offseason, including both the spring and fall camps.
The depth the Broncos built last fall and this spring will give also the Broncos some flexibility at the free safety and linebacker positions.
With the 2020 season-ending injury to linebacker Zaire Barnes, A.J. Thomas moved from free safety to cover SAM linebacker last year and Harrison Taylor started all six games at free safety. Thomas and Taylor are listed at linebacker on the current online depth chart and Taylor repped with the linebackers in the spring, but, with the anticipated return of Barnes this fall, Thomas and/or Taylor could wind up at free safety or somewhere in the defensive backfield.
Safety Delano Ware transferred from Illinois for the 2021 season and provides a potential starter or insurance at defensive back or linebacker. Ware played defensive back for the Fighting Illini early in his career, starting nine games at nickel and safety before moving to linebacker for his junior season.