TheWolverine.com caught up with MLive Western Michigan insider Patrick Nothaft to get some insight on the Broncos ahead of their game against the Michigan Wolverines Saturday (Sept. 4 at noon ET).
Nothaft discussed WMU’s prolific passing attack, a defensive line that might be one of the MAC’s best and more, in addition to providing his final score prediction.
Western Michigan’s Projected Starters On Offense
• Redshirt sophomore QB Kaleb Eleby — The third-team All-MAC selection ranked third in the FBS in passer rating in 2020 (195.08). Eleby completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,715 yards and 18 touchdowns with two interceptions.
• Junior RB La’Darius Jefferson — Paced the squad in rushing last season, with 624 yards and five touchdowns on 112 carries, while averaging 104 yards per game and 5.6 yards per attempt.
• Redshirt junior WR Jaylen Hall — He finished second on the team in touchdown receptions (seven) and third on the squad in receiving yards (323) last season, finding the end zone in each game. His yards-per-catch average of 26.9 led the nation.
• Sophomore WR Skyy Moore — The preseason All-MAC honoree by Athlon Sports concluded last season with 25 catches for 388 yards (second on team) and three touchdowns.
• Sophomore WR Corey Crooms — He made just two catches for 36 yards last season, despite appearing in five games.
• Senior TE Brett Borske — He hauled in four receptions for 29 yards in 2020, and his run-blocking grade of 81.1, per PFF, was the team’s top mark. He has been injured during the preseason and his status is uncertain for the opener.
• Senior LT Wesley French — Before transitioning to left tackle this offseason, he started all six games and played 397 snaps at center a year ago. He did not allow a sack or quarterback hit and yielded just one QB hurry. His PFF grade of 61.5 is considered just below average (64 is average).
• Redshirt junior LG Trevor Campbell — The veteran has seen action on just 22 career snaps, including 16 plays last season.
• Senior C Mike Caliendo — The 2020 first-team All-MAC standout started all six games and played every offensive snap (397) at guard, and did not allow a sack or quarterback hit on the year. His PFF run-blocking grade of 80.1 was second on the squad (best on the offensive line) and his pass-blocking grade of 77.5 was second among linemen who played at least 20 snaps.
• Redshirt junior RG Dylan Deatherage — He started all six contests a year ago, allowing just one sack, no quarterback hits and three quarterback hurries. His overall PFF grade of 66.0 ranked 13th on the offense and third among offensive linemen.
• Senior RT Mark Brooks — He began all six clashes in 2020 and played every offensive down, earning a PFF grade of 81.9, which ranked top 30 among Group of Five offensive linemen and tied for sixth in the MAC.
Western Michigan’s Projected Starters On Defense
• Senior DE Ali Fayad — In four games during the 2020 season, he totaled 17 tackles, including six stops for loss and four sacks, while adding two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He posted an elite PFF pass-rushing grade of 90.4, which checked in second on the team and ranked top 13 in the FBS.
• Redshirt sophomore DT Braden Fiske — He started all six clashes a year ago and made 13 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks. His PFF pass-rushing grade of 72.4 checked in third on the squad.
• Senior DT Ralph Holley — The West Bloomfield, Mich., native topped the team in pass-rushing, per PFF, with a grade of 90.6, while notching 13 quarterback hurries, three sacks, eight tackles for loss and 26 total stops.
• Redshirt sophomore DE Andre Carter — He registered five tackles, 1.5 stops for loss and a half-sack while playing 131 snaps last season. His overall PFF grade of 49.1 ranked 27th on the defense, and he did not grade out as above average in any category.
• Senior LB A.J. Thomas — The former defensive back moved to linebacker this offseason due to a lack of depth at the position. He started four games at safety and two at cornerback a year ago, and ranked second on the team in tackles (46) and tied for first in tackles for loss (nine).
• Redshirt junior LB Corvin Moment — Began all six contests in 2020, finishing with 37 tackles, three stops for loss and 1.5 sacks. His PFF mark of 63.9 is right around average.
• Redshirt sophomore LB Ryan Selig — He was a backup last year, posting 10 tackles and one sack in 67 snaps.
• Redshirt sophomore CB DaShon Bussell — This offseason, he moved over from wide receiver, where he caught two passes for 25 yards in 2020.
• Senior CB Therran Coleman — The Pittsburgh transfer missed the entirety of last season with an injury but is fully recovered. At his former school, he started two games and appeared in 34, totaling 18 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble.
• Senior S Bricen Garner — The headliner of WMU’s secondary finished third on the team in tackles (45) last season, while also notching 3.5 stops for loss, a half-sack and four pass breakups. His tackling grade of 72.1 is considered solid, while his coverage mark of 58.8 is regarded as below average.
• Senior S Delano Ware — The Illinois transfer is set to make his WMU debut. He recorded 30 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss, one sack and one interception in 23 appearances in the Big Ten.
Biggest Strength Of Western Michigan’s Offense
The biggest talking point heading into the game is Western Michigan’s potent passing attack going up against the Wolverines’ pass defense that struggled a year ago. In 2020, the Broncos racked up 286.5 yards per game through the air, the 23rd-best mark in the nation.
“Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby ranked third nationally in passing efficiency last year behind Alabama’s Mac Jones and BYU’s Zach Wilson, and even though the big caveat is that he did it against a MAC-only schedule, he has a big arm and showed great decision-making in the RPO offense,” Nothaft said. “Wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge is gone to the NFL [second round to the Seattle Seahawks], but there are still enough quality targets, led by [redshirt junior] Jaylen Hall and [sophomore] Skyy Moore, to make this a formidable passing attack.
“The Broncos have three running backs — [junior] La’Darius Jefferson, [sophomore] Sean Tyler and [senior] Jaxson Kincaide — that can all make defenses pay when they don’t respect the ground game, but I’m not sure if they’ll be able to match last year’s success against a team like Michigan.”
Biggest Weakness Of Western Michigan’s Offense
The biggest question marks surrounding the Broncos include one injury and an offensive line that has some moving pieces and is an unknown.
“Massive [senior] tight end Brett Borske (6-7, 275) got dinged up early in camp, and the staff is hopeful he’ll be able to return for Week 1, but if he doesn’t that leaves a significant void in the passing game because no other tight end on the roster has a catch in their college career,” Nothaft said.
“The Broncos are also breaking in a new left tackle in converted [senior] center Wesley French, who has bounced around the offensive and defensive lines throughout his college career. He was a solid interior blocker last season, but tended to put a lot of heat on his snaps and sometimes air mailed them over Eleby’s head, so the coaching staff moved [senior] All-MAC guard Mike Caliendo to center and kicked French out to left tackle. Head coach Tim Lester has been talking French up during camp, but how that translates to games has yet to be seen.”
Biggest Strength Of Western Michigan’s Defense
Michigan’s offensive line will face a test against a stout Bronco defensive front. WMU ranked fifth in the country last season with 8.5 tackles for loss per game.
“The defensive line should be one of the league’s best, with the unit returning three solid ends in [senior] Ali Fayad, [redshirt sophomore] Andre Carter and [redshirt freshman] Marshawn Kneeland, plus multiple-year starters on the inside in [senior] Ralph Holley and [redshirt sophomore] Braden Fiske,” Nothaft explained.
“[Senior] Idaho State transfer Kainoa Fuiava brings bulk (6-3, 300) and production at the FCS level, but it remains to be seen how his game translates to the MAC.”
Biggest Weakness Of Western Michgian’s Defense
WMU slotted 78th nationally in 2020 for pass defense, yielding 242.3 yards per game through the air. This season, the Broncos have shuffled some pieces around and added a transfer, but there are major concerns about the back end of the defense.
“Cornerbacks have been a sore spot since Darius Phillips and Sam Beal left for the NFL after the 2017 season, and the unit suffered another blow this offseason when the team announced 2019 All-MAC cornerback Patrick Lupro will be sitting out this season to focus on academics,” Nothaft said. “Lupro wasn’t the biggest or fastest guy out there, but was tough as nails and a great open-field tackler.
“Attempting to fill his shoes will be [redshirt sophomore] DaShon Bussell, who moved to defense from wide receiver during spring ball, and [senior] Therran Coleman, a Pitt transfer that’s coming off a torn ACL. [Redshirt freshman] Keith Jones Jr. and [senior] Calin Crawford started three games apiece opposite Lupro last year, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of them passed by Bussell or Coleman.
“Lester has been talking up the speed of the secondary, especially Bussell, who he called the team’s fastest player, but cornerback is still one of the biggest question marks.”
Nothaft’s Final Score Prediction
“WMU’s offense should be able to score some points against a Michigan defense that wasn’t great against the pass last year and is in its first game under new coordinator Mike Macdonald,” Nothaft said. “The key will be protecting quarterback Kaleb Eleby long enough to let the long pass plays develop, and that’s no easy task against a unit that features one of the nation’s best pass rushers in [junior] Aidan Hutchinson.
“On the other side of the ball, I think Michigan should be able to move the ball on the ground until WMU stacks the box, at which point [redshirt sophomore quarterback] Cade McNamara should be able to find favorable matchups and build some confidence heading into Week 2.”
Prediction: Michigan 45, Western Michigan 21
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