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2023 Western Michigan Broncos Positional Previews: Defensive front seven

The Broncos front seven is hitting the reset button and it might be a problem, especially early.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

The front seven was unquestionably the strength of the 2022 Western Michigan Football team. Three senior linebackers returned and started every game as well as two defensive linemen. One starter from 2022 returns for this season. To say they are starting over in the position is an understatement.

The silver lining is that the players that were rotational or depth players a year ago are playing in the same system with the same coaches. The development of those players isn’t interrupted by the coaching change at the top as much as some other positions.

Defensive coordinator Lou Esposito is entering his fifth full season as the defensive coordinator for the Broncos and has been integral to their recruiting. The Western Michigan front seven is going to debut the depth he had a hand in recruiting and his scheme, which is a holdover from the previous coaching staff.

It’s still a tall task for the players and coaches to produce at the same level as last year. The defense was 65th in the SP+ at the end of the year, the highest for Western Michigan under Esposito. The Broncos need to find six players to fill out the front seven.

Let's get into who they might be:

Down linemen

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


  • Andre Carter (Transfer to Indiana)
  • Braden Fiske (Transfer to Florida State)
  • Hozey Haji-Badre (Graduation)
  • Warren Dabney (Graduation)
  • Kenny Givens (Not on roster)
  • Elijah Hawk (Not on roster)


  • Isaiah Green (Transfer from Iowa Western CC [JUCO])
  • Marcel Tyler (Transfer from Iowa Western CC [JUCO])
  • Ryan Wynn (Transfer from Georgia Military College [JUCO])
  • Sid Kaba (Incoming recruit)
  • Razah Townsend (Incoming recruit)
  • Dalton Gustwiller (Incoming recruit)


  • Marshawn Kneeland
  • Mason Nelson
  • Joshua Nobles
  • Tyson Lee
  • Patrick Grange
  • August Johanningsmeier
  • Logan Wilson
  • Corey Walker
  • Isaiah Street
  • Jayden Childers
  • Tag Bonnema

The pain of changing head coaches is felt along the defensive line. Andre Carter and Braden Fiske were both redshirt juniors and all-MAC Second Team performers. Tim Lester was fired on November 28th and Lance Taylor was hired on December 8th. In between those dates, Carter and Fiske entered the transfer portal and had found welcoming power five teams.

Defensive end Andre Carter is going to contribute at Big Ten Indiana and Braden Fiske is playing for playoff-hopeful Florida State. They didn’t have to leave and I don’t blame them for taking control of their situation. It would be a huge risk to leave the final year of their college careers in a coach that they didn’t choose to play for.

With Carter and Fiske transferring away, and Hozey Haji-Badre and Warren Dabney graduating, that leaves only Marshawn Kneeland as a returnee. It was a bit of a surprise, as Kneeland had initially entered the transfer portal and committed to Colorado. But after meeting with Coach Taylor and having a discussion about staying in Kalamazoo, Kneeland withdrew from the portal and is now the de facto leader of the front seven.

The returners that are likely to get a chance at starting are Mason Nelson, Tyson Lee and Joshua Nobles. Each of the three linemen registered at least one tackle for loss last season and were in the rotation.

Three junior college players come via the transfer portal as well as three high school recruits. The JUCO players are Isaiah Green and Marcel Tyler from Iowa Western and Ryan Wynn from Georgia Military College. Green and Tyler were all-Region players in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference with productive sack and tackle-for-loss numbers. Wynn has the best numbers of the three but now the question for each player is how well they can adjust to FBS football.

Sid Kaba headlines the incoming recruits with five scholarship offers from the Power level, including Michigan and Penn State. Razah Townsend joins as a defensive end and Dalton Gustwiller along the interior.

Depth is the issue the defensive line faces for the Broncos.

At least six defensive linemen will be utilized to keep players fresh throughout a game or season, and the Broncos have only one with significant playing time in his career. If players go down with injuries, the depth will be tested further. Kneeland will draw attention at least early in the season and the new players will need to take advantage of their matchups.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Quick Lane Bowl - Western Michigan v Nevada Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


  • Zaire Barnes (NFL Draft, sixth round to New York Jets)
  • Corvin Moment (Graduation)
  • Ryan Selig (Transfer to Minnesota)
  • Harrison Tyler (Graduation)
  • Zach Vode (Not on roster)
  • Cole Johnson (Not on roster)
  • James Dewald (Not on roster)
  • Matthew Stuckey (Graduation)


  • Jacob Wahlberg (Transfer from Purdue)
  • Donald Willis (Transfer from Minnesota)
  • Nate Norris (Transfer from Lehigh)
  • Marcus Woodley (Incoming recruit)
  • Brendan Budeselich (Incoming recruit)


  • Damari Roberson
  • Quinton Cannon
  • Boone Bonnema
  • Naahlyee Bryant
  • Jelani Willis
  • Dillon Moore

Last year, the Broncos had a fantastic linebacker group with three experienced seniors in Zaire Barnes, Corvin Moment and Ryan Selig. They combined for 242 total tackles, 21 tackles for loss, nine sacks and ten pass breakups. All of that left the program this offseason.

The losses here were ultimately not as avoidable as the defensive linemen.

Moment and Barnes were out of eligibility at the end of the season and Barnes was drafted by the New York Jets. Ryan Selig was out the door to Minnesota before Lance Taylor was announced. I can’t blame Selig at all for the same reasons as the defensive linemen.

Projecting the linebacker group is a fool's errand. There are six players that are likely to get snaps, but if all 11 players see the field at some point I wouldn’t be surprised.

Nate Norris is an FCS transfer from Lehigh and was very productive for the Mountain Hawks. He was on the all-Patriot Second Team in 2022 and has 194 career tackles. He is a class of 2017 signee and will be a leader with his experience in the position. He was in the top three players in sacks each of the last two seasons and can get after the quarterback.

Donald Willis and Jacob Wahlberg were Big Ten depth pieces until transferring to Kalamazoo. Willis is a former Minnesota Gopher with 46 tackles over four seasons and his 247 Sports composite score would have made him the second-highest-rated defensive recruit in WMU history. Wahlberg played more over the last two seasons for Purdue, but only started one game for the Boilermakers in 2022. Hopefully, they are ready to show out in their only year at Western Michigan.

Damari Roberson, Boone Bonnema and Quinton Cannon are the returning Broncos likely to get the first shot at starting. Bonnema and Cannon don’t have a lot of playing time to know if they are ready for a starting role, but Bonnema is a redshirt junior and Cannon is a true junior. They have both waited patiently for this opportunity. Roberson was an extremely talented wide receiver out of high school, but injuries have derailed his development to this point. He’s been a wide receiver, safety and linebacker for the Broncos. This is his year to earn the playing time he’s wanted from signing day in December of 2018.

It’s another tall task for the coaches and players. Replacing all three starters in one offseason is going to take some time to find the right mix. Transfers bring experience and the returners are familiar with the Esposito defense. Western Michigan fans can have optimism that there are enough athletes to allow the coaching staff to find the personnel packages that work, but realistic expectations are a must. With limited on-field experience, some lessons will be learned the hard way.

Week-to-week progress will be the name of the game for the Western Michigan linebackers and front seven as a unit.

This is the fourth in a series of Western Michigan football previews, with our next piece addressing the defensive backs. 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.