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Five new MAC starters that showed signs of breakout seasons in Week 1

From Jack Salopek to DJ Taylor, here are the new starters in the conference that come with immediate All-MAC potential.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Western Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the past month, we previewed all 12 MAC teams, breaking down position group by position group. We evaluated players by the sample data points we already had from previous seasons, but every year, a new crop of players breaks out to take over the conference. For instance, Kent State wide receiver Dante Cephas logged 82 receptions and 1,240 yards in 2021 after entering last season with career totals of 15 and 155 across two seasons. So who is primed to become this year’s Cephas?

Now that we have a sample data point on 12 teams, here are five budding MAC stars who impressed Week 1 and could generate momentum for all-conference honors later down the line:

Jack Salopek, QB, Western Michigan (Fr.)

Starting your first career game on the road against a team coming off a New Year’s Six bowl victory is not ideal for any quarterback. Despite the unfavorable circumstances, Jack Salopek handled his first start at Western Michigan with tremendous poise. He faced an early 21-3 deficit to Michigan State but did not get rattled, bringing the Broncos back within one possession in the final minute of the third quarter.

He connected on 21 of his 36 passing attempts, firing for 193 yards without an interception in East Lansing. Salopek’s mobility was on full display too when he broken out for a 61-yard run on a designed QB draw. At the end of the run, Salopek exhibited his toughness as he trucked a Spartan defender prior to going down. Salopek’s rushing prowess may not show in the box score due to the seven sacks he absorbed, and the box score also fails to recognize his best pass as a Bronco. Salopek hit wide receiver Corey Crooms on a corner route in the third quarter which would have sliced the Bronco deficit to 21-17, but an ineligible man downfield penalty wiped away the redshirt freshman’s first career touchdown pass.

James Bostic, WR, Ohio (Sr.)

Ohio was the lone MAC underdog to pull out a stunner in Week 1. The Bobcats strolled onto the newly named Frank Solich Field and looked just like a team from the mid-2010s Solich era. Wide receiver James Bostic was a pivotal playmaker in the 41-38 shootout victory over Florida Atlantic, securing six receptions and 136 yards in the opener. Bostic also captured his first collegiate touchdown grab on a 15-yard tunnel screen from quarterback Kurtis Rourke to hand the Bobcats their final score of the night.

With 136 yards on the season, Bostic already has a career-high in his fifth and final season of college football. The former Vanderbilt transfer played sparingly in his first season at Ohio in 2021, managing just five receptions for 34 yards. But this year, Bostic looks to become a major component of Tim Albin’s offense and currently ranks first in the MAC in receiving yards.

Devontez Walker, WR, Kent State, (So.)

Kent State retains 2021 All-MAC selection Dante Cephas, who served as the conference’s top breakout player a year ago. However, the Golden Flashes lost considerable supporting depth receiver with the exodus of Keshunn Abram (47 receptions, 699 yards in 2021) and Nykeim Johnson (54 receptions, 620 yards in 2021). In desperate need of a new secondary option, the Golden Flashes certainly found that Saturday night in Seattle.

Walker captured four receptions for 56 yards in the 45-20 season opener loss to Washington. The receiver proved to be a preferred target of new starting quarterback Collin Schlee, as each of Schlee’s first 10 completions landed in the gloves of Cephas or Walker. Walker is also the lone recipient of a Kent State passing touchdown this year, beating Washington cornerback Mishael Powell in one-on-one coverage on a fly route to secure a 47-yard score. Kent State’s offense emphasizes speed and the 6’3” sophomore certainly has that attribute to his game, which should serve the Golden Flashes well this season.

Jalen McGaughy, WR, Central Michigan (So.)

McGaughy is no stranger to playing in the MAC. The wide receiver spent his 2020 and 2021 seasons with Ball State, corralling eight receptions and 295 yards in a Cardinal uniform — calculating to an absurd average of 36.9 yards per reception. While that average isn’t sustainable if McGaughy gets more utilization, he still proved his explosiveness from his Ball State days by racking up 21 yards per catch in his first game with Central Michigan.

Lining up against an Oklahoma State unit which ranked ninth in scoring defense a season ago, McGaughy accumulated six receptions for 121 yards. At Ball State, four of his eight receptions wound up in the end zone, and he maintains that high reception-to-touchdown ratio as a Chippewa. He accounted for two touchdowns Thursday night against the Cowboys, and both were highlight reel material. On oe of them, he cut inside and shed a tackler for a 54-yard catch-and-run, and the other was a goal line fade where he juggled the ball before snagging it on his way to the ground.

DJ Taylor, ILB, Bowling Green (Sr.)

Taylor is not exactly new to a starting role. He recorded eight starts at his previous school of Wake Forest, but seven of those starts were logged in his 2018 redshirt freshman campaign. Now a member of a new conference, Taylor regains his old status as a significant playmaker on defense. He displayed immediate success in his Bowling Green debut at the Rose Bowl, tying his career-highs in solo tackles (6) and total tackles (8).

When Bowling Green held a 17-7 second quarter due to a commanding defensive start, Taylor’s presence was a major reason why. In the first quarter, he stalled a UCLA drive by operating in zone coverage and intercepting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson — returning his second career pick 24 yards. Lining up alongside a First Team All-MAC outside linebacker in Darren Anders, Taylor’s magnificent presence in the defense could elevate the Falcons to fielding the conference’s top linebacking corps in 2022.