In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
Western Michigan didn't implode in the first year of the post-P.J. Fleck era but — even with the parade of injuries — they also weren't great in a lot of areas.
Injuries suck but at least it led to the development of some young players and will help the Broncos withstand losses of guys like Darius Phillips, Chukwuma Okarafor and — suddenly — Sam Beal. This year feels like the real start of the Tim Lester era.
Western Michigan won seven fewer games but scared USC in the opener (and Michigan State a week later), won four league games and lost to Central Michigan and Northern Illinois — the two teams that finished directly above them in the West — by a combined 11 points.
"It was kind of a disappointing season … we've always got a chip on our shoulder," safety Stefan Claiborne said in February. "But now that's in the past. We can only focus on the present right now and always have a chip on our shoulder, just trying to get better every day."
They were obliterated by injuries, losing quarterback Jon Wassink for the final four games, running back LeVante Bellamy for five games and nearly 20 others for large portions of the season.
Head Coach: Tim Lester (2nd Year, 6-6)
Tim Lester had the impossible task of not only replacing Fleck after a 13-win season but doing so in January instead of November or December like most new head coaches.
Lester, a former WMU quarterback and assistant, is now calling plays after offensive coordinator Kevin Johns left for the same position at Texas Tech.
"I've been a head coach for seven years of my life, and last year was the first time I never ran the offense. Jake [Moreland] does a great job and organizes the whole thing," Lester said, referencing new coordinator Jake Moreland, who was offensive line coach and co-coordinator last year. "So we have a lot of new concepts that are really good, we're changing some routes and how we run them, but [the offense] is not all that different."
RB Jarvion Franklin, TE Donnie Ernsberger, OT Chukwuma Okorafor, LB Robert Spillane, LB Asantay Brown, LB Caleb Bailey, , CB Darius Phillips, CB Malik Rucker, CB Sam Beal, P Derrick Mitchell
Western Michigan had multiple draft picks for the third straight season after having zero picks in the three prior drafts. All-MAC First-Team selections Chukwuma Okorafor and Darius Phillips were third- and fifth-round picks, respectively. Phillips was also MAC Special Teams Player of the Year.
They also lost two more corners in Malik Rucker and Sam Beal. As of this writing, Beal is applying for entrance into the NFL Supplemental Draft and is expected to get it.
Jarvion Franklin is gone after running for nearly 5,000 yards in his career, as is tight end Donnie Ernsberger after ranking second on the team in receptions and touchdowns. Robert Spillane and Asantay Brown were both All-MAC linebackers and their two leading tacklers.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Jon Wassink, RB LeVante Bellamy, RB Jamauri Bogan, WR Keishawn Watson, WR D'Wayne Eskridge, WR Hunter Broersma, TE Giovanni Ricci, OT Zach Novoselsky, G Luke Juriga, C Jon Keenoy
Jon Wassink, a 6-foot-2, 202-pounder from Grand Rapids, was the successor to Zack Terrell. He wasn't nearly as good as the three-time All-MAC quarterback but found a nice groove before going down a broken collarbone vs. Eastern Michigan. He probably could've played in a bowl game had the bowl-eligible Broncos been invited to one.
Wassink will have a new voice in his ear this season as Lester takes over play-calling for a unit that lacked big plays (95th in yards per completion) and was mediocre in the red zone (31 touchdowns in 51 opportunities).
“This is kind of like my third offense in three years so I’m kind of used to learning new stuff and a lot of the concepts are the same," Wassink said in April. "We’re doing a little bit different RPO game so our run-pass-option game is a little bit different than it has been in the past.”
Losing the program's all-time leading rusher (Jarvion Franklin) isn't ideal but they return two of the best backs in the MAC in Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy. Bellamy is a stud playmaker who's averaged seven yards per carry in his career (including eight last year) but had each of the last two seasons cut short by injury.
The receivers, quite frankly, need to be better. Botched routes, drops and almost no go-get-it plays hurt this offense badly. Watson and Eskridge are the top options but guys like sophomore Hunter Broersma — whom Wassink said "got a lot better" during spring ball — will have chances. Also, Giovanni Ricci moved to tight end.
"We know who we are, we know we have good running backs and we know we have a great offensive line and a good quarterback coming back," receivers coach Ashton Aikens said in February. "And our job is to take what the defense gives us. Everything we do on the perimeter is a compliment to a good run game.
The offensive line will be strong and one of the best in MAC despite losing Okorafor.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Antonio Balabani, DE Eric Assoua, DE Ali Fayad, LB Drake Spears, LB Alex Grace, CB Obbie Jackson, CB Emanuel Jackson, S Justin Tranquill, S Stefan Claiborne
The departures of Phillips, Rucker and their top three linebackers were expected. The loss of corner Sam Beal was not. Again, as of Wednesday, June 6, Beal is applying for the NFL Supplemental Draft and, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, could be a high selection.
That leaves junior Obbie Jackson, sophomore Emanuel Jackson and Syracuse grad transfer Juwan Dowels at corner for a team that held opponents to a 57-percent completion clip and had a respectable 10 interceptions.
"He's becoming what the NFL is looking for," cornerbacks coach Nick Sanchez said of Beal in March. "A tall guy that can run and can play press coverage. We play a press coverage here. We'll take any form we can find that can play, but if you can get a long one that can do what we're asking them to do, we'll take him."
Junior safety Justin Tranquill is back from a torn ACL that forced him to miss their final 10 games. He's a tackling machine that had 86 takedowns in 14 starts as a redshirt freshman in 2016.
The interior line lacks both top-end talent and depth but the ends should be fine with Balabani, Fayad and Eric Assoua (below). Assoua is yet another player who was lost for multiple games.
Again, all three starting linebackers are gone, opening the door for juniors Alex Grace and Drake Spears to lead the group.
Check out this quote from Lester on true freshman quarterback Kaleb Eleby, a three-star early enrollee:
"Somebody made fun of me yesterday and said [Kaleb] has a stronger arm than I did, and I laughed and said, 'It's not even close. He's got a way stronger arm. I wasn't even in that stratosphere.' Between his release and his arm strength, he can fit the ball in places that no one else on our team can right now."
Whoa. Read that again:
"[H]e can fit the ball in places that no one else on our team can right now."
Jon Wassink is the starting quarterback but that's quite the praise Eleby.
Juwan Dowels is a graduate transfer from Syracuse who didn't announce his transfer until May but will still compete for a starting spot. Drake Harris is 6-foot-4 grad transfer from Michigan who will also compete for a lot of time. Linebacker Najee Clayton is eligible after arriving from Rutgers.
Western Michigan opens the season at home vs. Syracuse, their first-ever meeting with the Orange. That's followed by a trip across I-94 to play Michigan for the first time since 2011. Michigan has won all six of their meetings, all in Ann Arbor.
MAC play opens with a Week 5 trip to Miami (OH) and their first MACtion game is the final Thursday of October. They don't play a Saturday game after their Oct. 20 trip to Central Michigan.
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