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Western Michigan Preview: Grab An Oar and Row the Boat

There is a certain buzz around Kalamazoo this season, and it has nothing to do with its craft beer scene.

In just three seasons, the Western Michigan Broncos have gone from an also-ran football program to one of the hottest products in the college football world. Third-year head coach P.J. Fleck is the catalyst of the change, as the team (and the entire university) has embraced his life philosophies and row the boat in a singular direction. The Broncos have been on fire on the recruiting trail, and this has resulted in a very talented and young roster that threatens to run the conference within the next year or two.

The Broncos surpassed every expectation last season and nearly won the West last season, dooming themselves of a miracle season with a division-clinching loss to Northern Illinois in the last week. Overall, WMU finished with an 8-5 record (6-2 MAC), a seven-win improvement over the 1-11 campaign in 2013, Fleck’s first year.

The out-of-conference schedule is decidedly tougher this season, as the Broncos look to prove themselves on a national scale. Only Murray State (45-14 victory in 2012) is a repeat opponent in the non-conference schedule.

(Asterisks denote conference games, pound signals a major or regional broadcast game.)

Sept. 4th vs. Michigan State Spartans #
Sept. 12th at Georgia Southern Eagles#
Sept. 19th vs. Murray State Racers#
Sept. 26th at Ohio State Buckeyes
Oct. 10th vs. Central Michigan Chippewas*
Oct. 17th at Ohio Bobcats*
Oct. 24th vs. Miami Redhawks*
Oct. 29th at Eastern Michigan Eagles*#
Nov. 5th vs. Ball State Cardinals*#
Nov. 11th vs. Bowling Green Falcons*#
Nov. 18th at Northern Illinois Huskies*#
Nov. 27th at Toledo Rockets*

Offensive Preview

WMU returns all but two starters on the offense, and all its skill players from last season. Fleck returns a good, young core that produced one of the most effective offenses in the country, totaling 33.8 points per game (32nd in the country) behind a standout running game and a reliable passing offense.

Zach Terrell developed into one of the best passers in the country last season, with 29 total touchdowns and 3,521 total yards with a 67.9 percent passing completion percentage. Terrell, seen as a project player, excelled when given full control of the offense. He finished third in the nation with 9.6 yards per pas attempt and sixth in passer rating (164.4), while earning second-team all-MAC honors. The battle for his backup will be interesting to witness, as true freshman Tom Flacco (yes, the brother of Joe Flacco), and redshirt Chance Stewart will vie for reps.

December 20, 2014: Western Michigan Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell (11) throwing during 1st half action between Western Michigan and Air Force at the 2014 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium in Boise Idaho, USA.

December 20, 2014: Western Michigan Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell (11) throwing during 1st half action between Western Michigan and Air Force at the 2014 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium in Boise Idaho, USA.

Jarvion Franklin was a revelation last year, turning in one of the finest rookie seasons in recent memory at starting running back., earning MAC Offensive Player of the Year and All-American honors. The 6’0″, 220 lb. true freshman back scourged defenses in 2014, running for 1,551 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns. Franklin was also a threat in the passing game, averaging 11.2 yards per reception. His backups include Fabian Johnson and Jamauri Bogan.

Corey Davis (brother of current San Diego Charger and CMU standout Titus Davis) leads a dynamic deep passing attack poised to improve on its numbers from last season (267.3 yards per game in 2014, 34th in the country). Davis led the team with 1,408 yards and 15 touchdowns on the way to being selected to the first-team all-MAC squad. Davis is easily regarded as the most NFL-ready prospect to come out of the conference, if not the nation.

On the other sideline is possession receiver Daniel Braverman, who recorded 86 receptions and six touchdowns last season, averaging 11.6 yards per catch. If WMU has a down year in passing, it will be due to experience. Junior Timmy Keith transferred to FCS Stony Brook after being surpassed on the depth chart, while 2014’s third-leading receiver Darius Phillips (32 rec., 479 yards, two touchdowns) has been converted to cornerback thanks to the departure of Donald Celiscar to the NFL.

This leaves senior Kendrick Roberts (16 receptions, 202 yards,) junior Michael Henry (six rec., 86 yards), and transfer receiver Carrington Thompson (89 rec., 1,210 yards, 10 touchdowns, 13.6 yards per catch at D-II Northwood University) to snag catches.

Seniors Willie Beavers and James Kristof return to anchor a beefy offensive line that helped Western Michigan gain 438.2 yards per game last season and kept Terrell and Franklin from getting seriously injured. 6’5″, 320 lb. junior guard Taylor Morton also returns, while 6’6″, 308 lb. sophomore Chukwuma Okorafor shows great promise as a starter in relief action last season. The position to watch will be center, as there is no one with experience to take over the position. The projected starter at center is freshman John Keenoy.

Defensive Preview

The defensive line, reliant on a blitz-heavy 4-3 package, improved its total points allowed score by double digits, giving up only 24.9 points per game last season. The line returns three of its four starters, including seniors Jarrell McKinney (25 solo tackles, 4.0 sacks), Cleveland Smith (13 solo tackles, 5.5 sacks), and sophomore Nathan Braster (16 solo tackles, 2.0 sacks). Western Michigan will miss Richard Ash III (21 solo tackles, 2.5 sacks), who was their primary run-stopper, but seeks to rotate junior David Curle and sophomores Nick Matich and Andre Turner at that nose tackle position.

grant depalma

Linebacker is a deep and young position group in the Western Michigan defense, with tackling machine Grant DePalma returning to lead with his aggressive, hard-nosed approach to the game that earned him 102 total tackles and 2.5 sacks. Robert Spillane also made noise at linebacker as a true freshman, finishing with 67 tackles and 4.0 sacks. Senior Devon Brandt, juniors Austin Lewis and Keion Adams, and sophomore Lucas Cherocci will look to fight for a starting position this season.

The defensive backfield is definitely in a state of transition this season. First-team all-MAC corner Donald Celiscar (63 tackles, four interceptions, and 17 pass breakups), Trevor Ishmael, Brian Williams, and safety Justin Currie (105 tackles, one interception, seven pass breakups) have graduated, leaving holes in the secondary.

Former receiver Darius Phillips has converted to corner to fill the void of Celiscar and has impressed in spring camp, while Ronald Zamort (four interceptions, 17 pass breakups) will fill the other corner slot. Senior Rontavious Atkins will play at strong safety, where he had 43 solo tackles and nine pass breakups. It will be interesting to see if they can keep up their conference-best 119.7 opposing passer rating going into the coming season.

Special Teams Preview

Senior punter and CFPA Award Watch List candidate J. Schroder (42.8 yards per punt) and fellow senior kicker Andrew Haldermann (14-of-17 field goals) return to their starting jobs this season. Haldermann will be a key player to watch as a Bronco fan; he was 0-3 from less than 30 yards out and missed five extra point attempts, yet 14-of-14 from outside 30.

Third-team all-MAC returner Darius Phillips (26.4 yards per kickoff, one touchdown) and Daniel Braverman (1.1 yard per punt return, no muffs) reprise roles as returners.

Overview

The Broncos return an amazing amount of talent on both sides of the ball. Any opponent will be put on notice after such a drastic turnaround last season, and teams will try and adjust accordingly. The offense, led by the three-headed monster of Zach Terrell, Corey Davis, and Jarvion Franklin is poised to scorch the earth and cut the air with surgeon-like efficiency, and will surely improve on their scoring offense, especially if an additional playmaker emerges in the passing game.

On defense, the front seven will dictate the tempo and timbre of the defensive attack, and seek to hit the quarterback with fervor under the leadership of Grand DePalma. Despite a projected down year, there is still plenty of individual talent in the secondary to make opposing receivers nervous. The development of Darius Phillips will be key to this defense’s success.

Overall, the Broncos are poised to make a run to the MAC West title, and perhaps even the MAC championship.

This could be the year that everything finally comes together for Fleck and Western Michigan. The going will be tough, as the schedule does not favor them (home vs. defending MAC East champs BGSU and away at West rivals NIU and Toledo the final three weeks of the season). However, I believe that the individual talent, combined with the ridiculous efficiency on both sides of the ball, will be enough for WMU to win the West.

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