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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Western Michigan Broncos defensive backfield

The Bronco secondary dealt with multiple injuries to their best athletes. Health might be all they need to make a jump as a position group.

Quick Lane Bowl - Western Michigan v Nevada Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

The Western Michigan secondary was hampered by injuries in 2021. There were nagging injuries that limited snap counts and major injuries that removed players for large stretches of the season. The only silver lining to injuries is younger players getting serious playing time.

The secondary struggled as a unit in certain games and gave away some touchdowns on blown coverages. Pitt got behind the defense twice early in the season, once for 67 yards and again for 33 yards. Ball State opened the game with a 75-yard touchdown pass that looked like four vertical routes against two deep safeties.

These issues cannot all be personnel. The Broncos have recruited well and brought in transfers consistently to play in the defensive back end. For WMU’s sake, the scheme needs some adjustment to take some big play risks out of the gameplan.

Experienced players that know what is expected of them and learned from mistakes the hard way, can fix some of those issues.

The mix of returning players and youth makes the secondary an exciting position group that can make a big difference in their record. Small improvements, a play here and a play there could make this a defense that wins games in the MAC.


NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of 2021, DaShon Bussell and Pitt transfer Therran Coleman were named the week one starters versus Michigan. Bussell was making his first appearance since switching positions as he was initially recruited as a receiver. That pairing didn’t last long.

Bussell suffered a season-ending injury during the second game against Illinois State. Junior Dorian Jackson started the remaining 10 games for WMU opposite Coleman, who stayed healthy and started every game.

Coleman graduated at the end of the season, clearing the way for a healthy Bussell and now a senior Jackson. Bussell still needs game experience, but his athleticism is not in question. In one offseason and fall camp, he earned a starting spot after switching from offense to defense.

Jackson lead the team with 12 pass breakups, more than double the next highest player. That means that he was being thrown at a fair amount, but also making the plays he can. He also lead the team with two interceptions. The defense had a combined total of four in 2021. Getting back to an average amount of interceptions would be huge for the defense.

The third cornerback is an open competition this fall. The nickel corner could be redshirt junior Keni-H Lovely, redshirt sophomore Keith Jones Jr or true sophomore Jeremiah Piper. Piper and Lovely saw playing time in at least ten games and Jones got into only two.

There was high praise for Bussell before the 2021 season and Jackson is their best playmaker at the position from a year ago. The starters should be strong. Injuries always play a role, as they did last year, and the nickel corner is most likely going to be a player getting their first serious reps at the position.

Overall, it’s a strong group and should remain that way for the Broncos this season.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Western Michigan at Eastern Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Five players started for Western Michigan across the safety positions last season and they used six different starting pairs. Injuries caused multiple lineup changes throughout the season in the position pairing.

Bricen Garner was a first-team All-MAC safety in the 2020 shortened season and started 2021 at strong safety. He missed four games due to an early injury and only started four games. Losing his production and consistency in the back end was a major blow last season.

Delano Ware stepped in for four games in his absence and AJ Thomas started four of the last six games.

On the free safety side, it was a similar story. AJ Thomas got the first two starts at the position, Ryan Kilburg got a single start against Pitt as a true freshman and Jake Moertl got the most starts with seven. The safety positions lacked week-to-week consistency.

Getting Garner back healthy for 2022 is a big deal. Provided he stays that way, the defense will be much improved. Ware returns most starts outside of Garner and will be pushed by FCS transfer Gio Vonne Sanders. Vonne Sanders played at St. Francis (PA) and was aggressive in playing the run, with 63 total tackles, including 2.5 for loss in 2021.

Kilburg is another depth player at the position that could see meaningful time this season. He was the next man up when the Broncos were pretty beat up against Pitt and appeared in every game last season.

A dark horse for the position is Demari Roberson from Mona Shores. He’s been in the program for two years and hasn’t played football in three. He was a former four-star athlete that suffered an injury and missed his senior year. WMU gave him an offer and he’s spent the last two seasons getting back to full strength. He finally is and he’s also listed as a linebacker, but the coaching staff will be eager to get him on the field.

It’s another interesting position group for the Broncos that has a mix of experience and youth. If they can avoid injuries this year, they will be a vastly improved unit from last season.