If you were to ask the casual college football fan who leads the nation in rushing touchdowns, very few would guess it would be someone from the MAC let alone a freshman that plays for Western Michigan. As a matter of fact nobody would have expected much from a Bronco team that went 1-11 last year. This years team has put some things together and are 4-3, sitting in second place in the MAC West, and feeling confident with the rest of the season. I was fortunate enough to steal some time from David Drew, writer for the the Kalamazoo Gazette, to get his impression of the team and the talent that could possibly make it to the NFL.
J: What were the expectations at the beginning of the season and are they currently meeting or exceeding them?DD: There were no exact expectations put on Western Michigan at the beginning of the season in terms of in the division or postseason aspirations. The general feeling was that this year’s team would be better than last year’s, which isn’t saying much after a 1-11 campaign in 2013. Looking at the added depth and the addition of a few playmakers with the incoming class, I thought it would be reasonable to set the bar at 3-5 wins for this team. With a 4-3 record and still five games to play, I think the Broncos are ahead of where anyone thought they would be. Aside from the addition of the highest rated recruiting class in Mid-American Conference history, I think one of the biggest keys to this team is there is a strong sense of belief in the locker room. I’ve seen little difference in practice after a win and after a loss.
J: What has this first part of the season shown you both offensively and defensively?DD: Offensively, WMU has shown it can move the ball on anyone. WMU put up 17 points at Virginia Tech. That might not take the breath away of a casual fan, but it’s important to point out that WMU’s offense averaged 17 points per game and ranked 116th out of 123 teams last year and the number of three-and-outs last year was very high. The Broncos are averaging 32.5 points per game through seven games and are in the top five in the MAC in many offensive categories. Also, WMU is plus-3 in the turnover margin, which is a huge improvement from WMU teams of recent years.Defensively, the Broncos have more depth at every position except linebacker, where the injury bug has been unkind. Opponents ran all over WMU last season, but that hasn’t been the case this season. I think the most important game to look to is WMU’s 26-14 win at Bowling Green last week. The Falcons are the defending MAC champions, had the top scoring offense in the league and were one of the most up-tempo offenses in the country, yet WMU shut them out in the second half. The defense was able to get WMU’s offense the ball back and the offense did an outstanding job of controlling the clock.
J: Could you name 3 or more players on each side of the ball that have really blossomed this year? What about this season contributed to their growth?DD:
Freshman running back Jarvion Franklin (6-1, 220)
leads the country through seven games with 16 rushing touchdowns. He is near the top in rushing yards with 992. He has benefited from an offensive line that returned four of five starters from last year and that group is playing with a lot of chemistry. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Daniel Braverman (5-10, 180)
is back from a torn ACL and has been a weapon all over the field, from taking jet sweeps around the end, catching bubble screens and making defenders miss and he’s also caught a few deep balls. Redshirt freshman receiver Darius Phillips
is one of the fastest players on the team and was a weapon in the return game and has gradually taken on a bigger receiving role. He is a solid third option after sophomore Corey Davis
, last year’s MAC Freshman of the Year, and Braverman. I think it’s also important to mention redshirt sophomore quarterback Zach Terrell
. While his numbers don’t wow you and he’s not the biggest or most athletic quarterback out there, he has done a superb job of managing the offense and getting the Broncos in the right play to move the ball.Defensively, senior safety Justin Currie
continues to be a tackling machine and really has a nose for the ball. Junior linebacker Grant DePalma
is one of those guys you have to shake your head and smile at because he’s 5-9, 220 pounds and leads the Broncos in tackles from his middle linebacker spot. When he gets his hands on you, you’re going to the ground. I’ve also been impressed with true freshman linebacker Robert Spillane
(6-2, 220). He was an outstanding running back in high school around the Chicago area. He still has a lot to learn about the linebacker position, but his athleticism and football instincts are strong, considering he’s a freshman. He is sixth on the team in tackles and comes from a strong football bloodline as his grandfather Johnny Lattner
won the Heisman at Notre Dame in 1953. Also, junior corner Ronald Zamort
has been good in coverage and while he is beat from time to time he’s done a nice job of being a ball hawk.
J: Building on the question above, do you see players who could potentially play at the next level? Why? What about their attributes and skill sets leads you to think that way?
DD: I think Justin Currie (6-2, 205) can be a special teams player at the next level and possibly a situational defensive back. He has outstanding speed, good instincts and he might be the hardest hitter on the defense. I think senior cornerback Donald Celiscar (5-11, 185) might get some looks, but he’s been inconsistent at times this year and he really needed to have a strong season and come up with a handful of interceptions. I think he is WMU’s best cover guy when he’s on his game. I think senior safety Rontavious Atkins (6-0, 195) might get a look. Like Currie, he has good instincts and comes up incredibly fast from the secondary to make plays at the line of scrimmage.
On offense, I wouldn’t be surprised if junior guard Jimmy Kristof (6-3, 295) got a look. He’ll be a four-year starter when it’s said and done and he’s gotten better and better every year. I think the potential for freshman offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (6-5, 275) is off the charts. He turned 17 years old just before the start of the season and nearly beat out a junior for a starting job. Okorafor turned down some major offers from Power 5 schools late in the recruiting process. Jarvion Franklin needs to continue to develop his speed, strength and pass blocking, but if he continues on the path he’s on he might get a look at the next level after his senior year.
J: What about the system in place offensively and defensively prepares these players to possibly make the transition to the next level?
DD: Defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham is an old school guy. He runs a 4-3 scheme and plays a lot of man coverage because he rightfully has a lot of trust in his secondary. WMU still has some recruiting to do in the front seven, but Pinkham’s philosophy is to stop the run and make you beat WMU over the top. There are certainly opportunities to have individual success and build your resume in his system.
Offensively, coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca runs a spread zone option offense. Most of Franklin’s run come off of play fakes with Braverman coming in motion. WMU runs a lot of zone blocking schemes and Franklin has shown great vision. WMU also drops back in a conventional five-step passing play and the offensive line has shown it can hold up.
J: Biggest surprise at the mid point of the season from players around the league positive or negative, and teams both positive and negative?
DD: Bowling Green was the heavy preseason favorite to repeat as MAC champions. The Falcons lost quarterback Matt Johnson, arguably the best in the league, in the first game of the season, but they were counting on their defense to be better than it’s been. I’d call Bowling Green an inconsistent team.
What running back Thomas Rawls, a Michigan transfer, is doing at Central Michigan is pretty incredible. He’s helped make the Chippewas a contender this season.
Miami has been much more competitive under first-year coach Chuck Martin than I thought the RedHawks would be.
I want to thank David Drew for his time and his thoughts about the Western Michigan Broncos. You can get your fill and keep up with Broncos by following him on twitter @Drew_on_WMU. Or of course you can read his work for the Kalamazoo Gazette at mlive.com/broncos.