Broncos expected to be contend for MAC crown in 2019
KALAMAZOO – For Western Michigan football fans, 2018 was a roller coaster year.
The campaign saw the Broncos post a 7-6 record under second-year head coach Tim Lester, capped off by a 49-18 loss to BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Here’s a look at how the Broncos got there, and what to expect from the team heading into 2019:
Key injuries and departures
Spring practices marked the return of quarterback Jon Wassink, who missed the final four games of 2017 as the team went 1-3 and missed out on a bowl game. Upon his return, the junior signal caller led the team to a string of six straight victories, throwing for 1,994 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions before suffering a season-ending foot injury against Toledo.
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Reece Goddard, who started at quarterback in Wassink’s absence in 2017, opted to leave the program following spring practices, as early-enrolled freshman Kaleb Eleby locked down the backup role. True freshman Wyatt Rector, the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster, left the program mid-season.
Also in the spring, running back Matt Falcon, a one-time Michigan commit, was medically disqualified with a knee injury. And defensive tackle Steven Clark, who started 11 games in 2017 after transferring from Syracuse, was medically disqualified for the second time in his college career due to a blood disorder.
Perhaps no player’s absence made a bigger impact than that of cornerback Sam Beal.
After deciding to return to school for his senior season instead of declaring early for the NFL Draft, the two-year starter learned he didn’t have the necessary credits to play in 2018, so he entered into the NFL supplemental draft. The New York Giants selected the Grand Rapids native in the second round.
Beal’s absence was exacerbated in the secondary by the suspensions of fellow cornerback’s Obbie Jackson and Emmanuel Jackson, who have since been removed from the roster. And safety Davontae Ginwright, who started in the 2016 Cotton Bowl, opted to leave the program mid-season after falling behind on the depth chart.
Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey helped the No. 20-ranked Orange build a 34-7 halftime lead over the Broncos in the season opener. Western Michigan rallied to cut the deficit to six late in the third quarter before Syracuse pulled away for a 55-42 victory.
There was no comeback bid against No. 8-ranked Michigan in Week 2, as the Wolverines walloped the Broncos, 49-3.
Western Michigan wouldn’t taste defeat again until Week 9, when Wassink went down early in a 51-24 loss to Toledo. The game did mark the breakout performance of Eleby, who was 23-of-28 passing for 283 yards and two touchdowns in his college debut.
In Week 10 against Ohio, the Broncos played their worst half of football of the season. The Bobcats built a 45-0 lead through two quarters of play on their way to a convincing 59-14 victory.
Against Ball State, the Broncos’ decision to go for the win in overtime by attempting a two-point conversion proved pivotal. The Cardinals held on for a 42-41 victory after tripping up Western Michigan running back LeVante Bellamy on the game’s final play.
Had Western Michigan defeated Ball State, which finished the season 4-8 overall, the Broncos would have been in a winner-take-all game vs. Northern Illinois for the Mid-American Conference West Division crown in the regular season finale.
The Broncos concluded the campaign by making the ninth bowl appearance in program history when it faced BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Cougars scored 28 unanswered points in the third quarter on their way to a 49-18 victory.
Following back-to-back losses against ranked opponents from the ACC and Big Ten, the Broncos were more than happy to host FCS program Delaware State in Week 3. The Broncos ran away with a one-sided 68-0 victory.
Western Michigan pulled out its first of four road wins the following week, with a convincing 34-15 win at Georgia State.
Miami (Ohio) was up next, as Western Michigan freshman receiver Jayden Reed hauled in four touchdown receptions and Wassink ran in the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of a 40-39 victory.
While the regular season finale against Northern Illinois lacked the high stakes of determining who would represent the MAC West, the Broncos did pull out the biggest win of the Lester era thus far with a 28-21 victory over the eventual MAC champions.
Unsatisfied with his defense following the overtime loss at Ball State, Lester announced the team had parted ways with defensive coordinator Tim Daoust ahead of the regular season finale. Lou Esposito was promoted to lead the unit for the final two games.
Lester himself was rewarded for a one-win improvement and the general direction of the program with a two-year extension that keeps the former Western Michigan quarterback in Kalamazoo through 2023. He earns $800,000 annually, making him the second highest-paid coach in the MAC behind Toledo’s Jason Candle ($1.1 million).
The Broncos are in the market for a handful of position coaches. The team recently announced it was parting ways with receivers coach Ashton Aikens and cornerbacks coach Nick Sanchez, while reports indicate linebackers coach David Duggan has left to become co-defensive coordinator at UMass and running backs coach Terry Malone departed to accept the offensive coordinator position at Bowling Green. It is unclear if Esposito will continue to oversee the defensive line if he is promoted to defensive coordinator on a full-time basis.
The bulk of the Broncos return in 2019, as the team is graduating only nine seniors. Among them are a pair of All-MAC performers in running back Jamauri Bogan and center John Keenoy.
Offensively, Wassink is expected to take the reigns again at quarterback, and he’ll be joined in the backfield by junior LeVante Bellamy, who finished second in the league in rushing with 1,228 yards. Junior guard Luke Juriga, a two-time All-MAC selection, is widely regarded as the Broncos’ best NFL prospect. And the entire receiving corps returns, including Reed, who earned all-conference status his first season on campus.
Defensively, the top 13 leading tacklers are expected to be back in the fold, led by junior linebackers Drake Spears (86 tackles) and Alex Grace (83 tackles) and safety Justin Tranquill (82 tackles). On the line, sophomores Ali Fayad and and Ralph Holley will look to build off of their breakout campaigns, after recording 7.5 and 7.0 sacks, respectively.
And new to the fold will be a 2019 recruiting class that currently leads the MAC.
All told, the Broncos figure to again be major players in the MAC and should benefit from an experienced roster that fell short of expectations in 2018.
Nick Buckley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley