The positional previews for Western Michigan have been all about how to replace strong offensive players along the line and skill positions. Finally, the Broncos have a core of returning players to build on from 2021.
Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley graduated, leaving holes in the defensive front seven, but their replacements are pretty clear and got substantial playing time in 2021. The starting linebackers are back entirely and the only linebacker leaving the program per the position on the roster, played more safety last season.
With all the turnover on the offensive side of the ball, the front seven need to be the team's strength. The defense was a hot and cold unit last season and struggled with explosive plays.
By most advanced metrics the Broncos were first or second in the MAC and a top 40 defensive unit, with explosive plays the notable exception. They were the leaders in the MAC in stuff rate and line yards, and second in front seven havoc rate, standard down success rate and passing down success rate.
They were 124th in the nation and 11th in the MAC in allowing explosive plays. The entire defense wasn’t any better about preventing big plays on the ground or in the air, so it’s not an issue that can be blamed solely on the secondary.
It’s hard to diagnose exactly what is going wrong and it’s probably not one thing but multiple. That’s up to defensive coordinator Lou Esposito and his position coaches to analyze and fix. Still, the players on the roster can clearly hold down opponents effectively on most downs.
The Broncos run a base 4-3 defense and have two edge rushers, two interior linemen and three linebackers when they aren’t matching personnel. Let's get into each group.
All-MAC second-team defensive linemen Ralph Holley moves on from the program and leaves a pretty big hole in the defensive interior. Not only is Holley a large man, he had 16.5 tackles for loss in 2021. That was third in the MAC among all defensive players.
His counterpart all season was Braden Fiske. Fiske is a redshirt junior in 2022 and is 6’5” and 300 pounds. Even at that size, he was athletic enough to get in on more plays than Holley did, his 43 tackles to Holley’s 39. He showed his strength and athleticism against Pitt when he bull-rushed the center and got to a scrambling Kenny Pickett to end the drive. There should be no concerns about Fiske anchoring the interior of the line.
There is a bit of a question about who will replace Holley, next to Fiske this season. Redshirt freshmen Mason Nelson and highly rated recruit Logan Wilson saw the field in one game each but could break into the defensive line rotation.
More likely, however, are the two grad transfers brought in from Eastern Carolina and VMI. Hozey Haji-Badri found his way to WMU from JUCO ASA College, then Eastern Carolina. He was an all-conference defensive end at the JUCO level and left as a top 15 defensive end prospect in all of JUCO in 2018. His time at ECU was not especially productive, but he’s a Bronco for one more season.
Warren Dabney transfers from VMI and was an efficient run stopper at the FCS level. He’s 6’1” and over 300 pounds and was a participant in 46 total tackles. He wasn’t as effective at getting into the backfield as Holley or Fiske but his 3.5 tackles for loss were good enough for all Southern Conference first team.
Expect Dabney to get the first look at standard downs and a younger player, maybe Wilson, to be getting rotated in on passing downs.
It is always a tall task to replace the MAC Defensive Player of the year, but the Broncos must find a way to do just that. Defensive End Ali Fayad was the defensive player of the year in 2021 and he earned that award by leading the MAC in tackles for loss (18) and sacks (13).
Fayad had every pass rush move in the book and used all of them to pick up a sack a game. Only five players in the NCAA achieved an average of one per game.
Andre Carter started on the other side of the line for the Broncos last season and returns as a redshirt junior. His pass rushing isn’t as refined as Fayad, but he has this season and next to get to where Fayad ended his career. This season is a great opportunity for him to show improvement in that area of his game.
Marshawn Kneeland was the third EDGE rusher in the rotation and made an appearance in every game. He also picked up 4.5 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss. Kneeland is the first up to replace the snaps that Fayad leaves vacant.
The depth guys this season look to be Elijah Hawk and Tyson Lee. Both are redshirt freshmen that each played in two games during the previous season. Both have the size to play and were trusted to see the field in more than the FCS game. There’s a clear starter for the open position but either or both could see meaningful playing time this coming season.
The Broncos have experienced players stepping up to take the starter's reps. Youth will stand behind them, and replacing Fayad’s production will be a tall task. It will not be one person that does it but it may be possible in the aggregate. If the Bronco defense is going to keep teams off the scoreboard while the offense figures itself out, they’re going to need the kind of production they got last season from this group.
The entire depth chart returns for the linebackers. Second-team All-MAC Zaire Barnes returns as the Sam linebacker, third-team All-MAC backer Corvin Moment comes back for the middle linebacker spot, and Ryan Selig is back at the Will position.
In 2021, the Broncos used Harrison Taylor in 13 games, Matthew Stuckey started a game and appeared in 12, Boone Bonnema appeared in 12 games and Quinton Cannon appeared in 11. They are all back. I’m sure some of these guys were special teamers as well as seeing the field during some defensive snaps.
Moment was fifth in the MAC in tackles for loss and tied for second with three forced fumbles last season. The dynamic linebacker can get downhill and disrupt drives with the best of them in the MAC. Here is his fumble he forced in the win against Kent State and here is the ball he knocked out of Kenny Pickett’s hands at Pitt.
Moment’s tackles for loss are different than his peers on the leader board in that his are run stops. The four players in front of him have between 5.5 and 12 sacks that automatically count towards the TFL column. Moment only had 3.5 sacks so that puts him at 10.5 run stops for a loss.
Moment and Barnes have each played a lot of football for the Broncos in their college careers. There should be no concerns about these two and there should be optimism that Selig can make a big step forward. Selig wasn’t a problem, but last season was his first year starting. Now that he’s been through a season as a starter, hopefully, the game slows down and he feels more comfortable.
The Broncos must capitalize on the returning experience of this linebacker group. With the questions at the other positions, this group must be solid. There should be little doubt that they will be.