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2023 Western Michigan Football Positional Previews: Offensive line

WMU’s line sat in front of the worst passing offense in the MAC in 2022. Can they pull themselves up from the bottom of the charts?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 NIU at Western Michigan Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Western Michigan Broncos have two positions without massive personnel turnover. The Broncos lose nine of eleven defensive starters from the previous season, their top two running backs and their top wide receiver. They don’t lose any of their quarterbacks and return 45 of 60 starts on the offensive line.

There are many question marks around the Western Michigan offense, but the quality of the offensive line is the most clear. No offensive starters have been named publicly in fall camp, but five offensive linemen return with at least six starts in 2023.

Dylan Deatherage is the only player that graduated from last season’s offensive line and is a big loss. He was a three-year starter, appearing in 12 of 13 games in 2019 and six games in 2018. Deatherage was an experienced lineman for the Broncos that played multiple positions in his career. He’s now signed with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent.

In 2023, Deatherage split time between left tackle and right guard. Junior Adam Vandervest started the remaining five games at the left tackle position and one at right tackle. Fifth-year senior Trevor Campbell returns from injury after six games at left guard, and redshirt junior Addison West was the utility man last season with 12 total starts across three positions.

Junior Jacob Gideon is on the Rimington Award watch list for the best collegiate center, and has 23 starts to his college career. Right guard didn’t have a consistent starter, but the right tackle was converted tight end Jack Sherwin for 11 games. Sherwin is a redshirt junior and one of the four returning starters getting ready for the second year as a starter.

That group was the core of an offense that underwhelmed Western Michigan fans.

Sacks are a quarterback stat, but it’s telling that neither quarterback that the Broncos used was able to avoid them. Western Michigan had the highest sack rate in the MAC and the third-fewest passing attempts. From watching the games last year, Jack Salopek held onto the ball and Treyson Bourguet was asked to run a different offense. It was clear that the coaching staff wanted to protect the freshman quarterback in his first college season.

The Broncos had the worst completion percentage of any team in the MAC by a wide margin. Miami was eleventh in completion percentage with 54.7 percent of passes completed; the Broncos were much worse than that, finishing with a mark nearly under 50 percent. That’s a number that shouldn’t happen in this era of college football. The really important part about a completion percentage that low, is what it allows the defense to do.

When the passing game isn’t a threat, defenses can load the box with defenders and make sure the running game is limited. They could dare the Broncos to beat them through the air and get away with it. When the rushing stats are sack adjusted, a 4.61 average rush isn’t bad. It’s not the top of the MAC, but 4.6 yards per rush when the defense knows it’s coming shows the strength of the offensive line.

Two things change the math from 2023:

  • Four of the five starters are entering their second season as a starter. Growth from the first season to the second could be significant.
  • Billy Cosh’s offense is not run-based and will ask the offensive line to do different things.

A big key for the offense will be staying out of third-and-long situations. The Broncos were 11th in the MAC in third-down conversion percentage and in the games against Bowling Green, Central Michigan and Toledo, they needed more than eight yards on average on third down. Eight yards to go requires a pass with at least a medium dropback by the quarterback and the defense knows it.

It put an inexperienced offensive line under pressure at a regular frequency. It’s a trend that has to change for the Bronco offense to succeed, not only the offensive line.

The coaches hope that new players show that they can compete for starting positions, or be rotational pieces this season. There are nine players on the roster that haven’t started a game and four new players in 2023.

Two transfers are set to make an impact immediately. Western Michigan is Michael Shanahan’s third stop in his college career. Out of high school, Shanahan committed to UT Martin and was named to the All-OVC First Team in 2021 and played all seven games of the 2021 spring season. He transferred to Texas Tech and had trouble getting on the field. Shanahan played in three games in his only season in Lubbock before transferring to Western this offseason.

Ted Kushi transfers in from FCS program Long Island University as an all-NEC First Team lineman. Long Island finished the season on a 4-0 run and averaged 37.5 points a game during the winning streak. He’s a six-foot-seven, 305 lb. lineman that won awards for his play. Kushi should compete for starts immediately.

Chad Schuster spent one season at Syracuse before transferring to Western Michigan, while and Luke Zanotti is the only high school recruit in the 2023 class. Zanotti is from Bay City and held offers from five other MAC programs and Coastal Carolina. These players are likely to be like many linemen that go to MAC schools and need some time to grow into an FBS lineman.

The Broncos have experience coming back and new pieces that could contribute immediately. No matter how the rest of the positions break down for Western Michigan, the offensive line needs to be a strength for this offense.

This is the third in a series of Western Michigan football previews, with our next piece addressing the defensive front seven. If you missed the first part or want to look at other MAC preview pieces, please click the link to our storystream here.

WMU’s season kicks off Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. Eastern time in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they are set to play FCS squad St. Francis [PA] Red Flash.