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WMU will regress after losing P.J. Fleck, but the 2017 Broncos are still dangerous

This team will still be a MAC contender under another interesting head coach.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published March 29 and has since been updated.

It is a fact of life in the MAC. The better you do, the faster you are looking for a new coach. You just hope to claim as many prizes as possible before he leaves.

Northern Illinois pulled this off a few years ago. The Huskies, two years removed from losing Jerry Kill to Minnesota, claimed an Orange Bowl berth before losing Dave Doeren to NC State. Bowling Green at least got conference titles out of Doeren (2013) and Dino Babers (2015) before losing them to Wake Forest and Syracuse, respectively.

Others have fallen short. Toledo has mastered playing like an elite MAC team without winning the MAC; the Rockets lost Tim Beckman to Illinois and Matt Campbell to Iowa State and got not even a division title to show for it. Ball State got a 12-0 start out of Brady Hoke but got upset in the MAC Championship and lost Hoke to San Diego State.

Western Michigan got its money’s worth when it hired a 32-year-old former Rutgers receivers coach in 2013. P.J. Fleck recruited circles around the rest of the conference and got his PhD in catchphrases.

He stripped the house to the studs in a 1-11 Year Zero reset, but after two slightly unsatisfying 8-5 seasons, his Broncos broke through in 2016, and he was still around to lead it.

WMU went 9-0 against the MAC and 2-1 against the Big Ten in 2016. The Broncos knocked off Northwestern and Illinois on the road early, trounced Georgia Southern in what was supposed to be a mid-major showcase, and then laid waste to conference foes: 49-10 over CMU, 41-0 over Akron, 52-20 over Ball State, 38-0 over Buffalo, 55-35 over Toledo.

With “Fleck to [Insert P5 School]?” rumors taking up more and more oxygen, the Broncos remained focused and welcomed ESPN College GameDay to Kalamazoo. (The signs were good, too.) Their reward: a trip to the Cotton Bowl and a competitive loss to Wisconsin.

Fleck left. That’s what happens. He’s at Minnesota, though from an WMU perspective, all that matters is what’s next.

After taking a flyer on a relative unknown last time, the school elected to go with a familiar face. At least, to WMU fans.

Lester threw for more than 11,000 yards in a Western Michigan uniform in the late-1990s and was inducted into the WMU athletics hall of fame. He played in both the XFL and Arena League, and after an unconventional playing career, he followed an even more unique coaching path:

  • 2000-01: high school offensive coordinator
  • 2002-03: Division III offensive coordinator (Elmhurst)
  • 2004: Division II head coach (he went 7-4 at Saint Joseph’s)
  • 2005-06: WMU quarterbacks coach
  • 2007: Division III defensive coordinator (North Central)
  • 2008-12: Division III head coach (33-19 at Elmhurst with a quarterfinal appearance)
  • 2013-15: Syracuse quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator
  • 2016: Purdue quarterbacks coach

Technically, WMU hired a former pro quarterback with six years of head coaching experience. But all of this experience happened on state roads instead of the interstate, so to speak.

If Lester’s up for this — and the fact that he had one losing season in six years at Saint Joseph’s and Elmhurst suggests he very well might be — then Fleck left plenty of toys in the toy box. The passing game has to be rebuilt following the loss of quarterback Zach Terrell and his top three receivers (including the incredible Corey Davis), but the run game could be dominant, and most of the defense returns.

So now we wait. Can Lester parlay D3 success into wins at a higher level? And if he does, will his hometown status lead to him staying a bit longer than the typical MAC coach?

(My guesses: 1. Yes, but not “13-1” level success. 2. No, probably not.)


2016 in review

2016 WMU statistical profile.

After a No. 53 S&P+ ranking in 2015, WMU headed into last fall with high expectations due to the combination of high-caliber recruiting and most of a potent offense returning. Still, it took both S&P+ and Vegas a little while to figure out just how impressive the Broncos were. You could make some money picking WMU early in the year.

WMU vs. S&P+ and Vegas

Eventually, the markets adjusted. WMU improved (offensively, at least) as the season progressed, but both S&P+ and Vegas caught on. And after the big win over Toledo clinched an unbeaten regular season, the Broncos slipped a hair in the postseason. The Broncos still weren’t bad, but there was regression.

  • First 7 games (7-0) — Avg. percentile performance: 63% (~top 50) | Avg. yards per play: WMU 6.6, Opp 5.5 (plus-1.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-20.7 PPG
  • Next 5 games (5-0) — Avg. percentile performance: 68% (~top 40) | Avg. yards per play: WMU 7.3, Opp 6.3 (plus-1.0) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-5.2 PPG
  • Last 2 games (1-1) — Avg. percentile performance: 53% (~top 60) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.8, WMU 5.1 (minus-0.7) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-5.2 PPG

WMU was steady, peaking a couple of times (at CMU and at Akron) but mostly establishing residence in around the 60th and 70th percentiles.

For all the talk about Fleck’s strange motivational techniques, they worked. WMU was one of the most consistent teams in FBS. Now we’ll see if Lester can row the boat.


Offense

WMU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Give Tom Flacco, Joe’s brother, this: he’s mastered small sample sizes. In 2015, backing up star Zach Terrell, he completed 10 of 12 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown (passer rating: 242.4) and rushed 28 times for 266 yards (9.5 per carry) and two scores.

Keep that up over a full season, and you’ll win the Heisman!

He won’t keep that up, obviously. But the younger brother of (much taller) Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe offered at least a few hints that there might be life after Terrell. Granted, Flacco will have to hold off three-star sophomore Jon Wassink, but one can assume decent quarterback play. [Update: Actually, Flacco has transferred to Rutgers.]

NCAA Football: Toledo at Western Michigan
Tom Flacco
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

So that’s one concern WMU probably won’t have. Now Flacco/Wassink just need some players to catch their passes. In Corey Davis, Michael Henry, and Carrington Thompson, WMU must replace a trio responsible for 79 percent of last year’s targets. Only one returning wideout (sophomore slot D’Wayne Eskridge) caught more than 10 passes last year. Eskridge is an exciting efficiency option, running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan combined to catch 30 of 33 passes, and tight end Donnie Ernsberger caught nine of 12. There might be a decent possession passing game in this bunch.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Western Michigan at Ohio
Jamauri Bogan
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

But who’s running routes downfield? There are plenty of former three-star recruits in the mix — sophomore Anton Curtis, redshirt freshmen Hunter Broersma and Rodney Graves, freshmen Luke Sanders and Tyron Arnett — but they have combined for zero career catches.

Luckily, new coordinator Kevin Johns will have a run game, and his history suggests he might know how to use it. In 2015, the Indiana coordinator had to replace his starting quarterback, running back, and three leading receivers. But with an emphasis on the run game and a rather extreme tempo, the Hoosiers improved from 63rd to 15th in Off. S&P+. Indiana ran slightly more than the national average on standard downs and quite a bit more than normal on passing downs, and they crafted an identity around power and pace.

Granted, a lot of gains came undone in 2016, when Indiana threw more and fell back to 67th in Off. S&P+. Still, Johns inherits not only Franklin (3,639 rushing yards in three years) and Bogan (1,974 in two), but also sophomore Davon Tucker, juniors LaVonte Bellamy and Leo Ekwoge, and redshirt freshman Matt Falcon, a one-time Michigan commit still working back from multiple knee injuries. And while the line does have to replace all-conference tackle Taylor Moton and two-year starting guard Jackson Day, two other all-conference linemen return (tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, center John Keenoy).

WMU’s offense was built around relentless efficiency; Davis and Thompson averaged 15.4 yards per catch, but this was otherwise an attack that pushed you around a few yards at a time.

WMU offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Efficiency is good, but big plays allow you score without executing well for eight to 10 plays in a row. WMU’s 2016 offense was experienced enough to attack consistently and had a big-play option in Davis. The 2017 offense won’t be that lucky. A lack of big plays could result in duds, even if the run game is mostly awesome.


Defense

WMU defensive radar

It only took Fleck until his second season to start getting the offense figured out. WMU improved from 121st in Off. S&P+ his first year to 42nd, 22nd, and 25th, respectively, over his final three years.

The defense, however, took longer. WMU ranked 93rd in Def. S&P+ in 2015, and while there was clear, definitive improvement last year despite turnover, the Broncos were still only 69th.

WMU was reasonably efficient on standard downs (37th in standard downs success rate) but played pretty passive, inefficient ball on passing downs; the Broncos’ sack rate was actually higher on standard downs (6.2 percent) than passing downs (5.3 percent), which isn’t supposed to happen. That resulted in quite a few second- or third-and-long bailouts.

If anything, under new coordinator Tim Daoust, we might be looking at the opposite problem.

A colleague of Lester’s at Syracuse, Daoust runs the type of defense that Lester hated facing as a quarterback.

The attack 4-3 defense quickly came to mind as it prompts defenders to attack the offense then react to changes as they occur instead of trying to read what an offense is doing before attacking.

The system, Lester said, is frustrating to throwing quarterbacks as they need to wait to read the defense after the play has started.

"When you're designing what you want your defense to look like as a head coach, you pretty much pick the defense you hated to go against the most and you say 'that's what I want to run,'" Lester said.

I always love that attitude — play the defense you hated to face.

An aggressive, confusing defense tends to pair well with an up-tempo offense in that it can force quick-change situations, wear opponents out, and create those deadly touchdown-turnover-touchdown situations that can turn a close game into a laugher.

Of course, if you aren’t good at the up-tempo offense or the aggressive defense, you’re creating identical disadvantages for yourself. We’ll see if the offense can play efficient ball, but I have fewer concerns about the defense. It could take pretty well to an aggressive approach.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Western Michigan
Asantay Brown
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

WMU does have to replace its two most disruptive defenders in the front seven; rush end Keion Adams and weakside linebacker Robert Spillane combined for 28.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five passes defensed, and five forced fumbles. They were a two-man havoc rate.

Still, ends Eric Assoua and Nathan Braster combined for 13.5 TFLs of their own, and linebackers Asantay Brown and Caleb Bailey combined for 17.5. It appears there’s plenty of attacking talent to go around, and that’s before mentioning the five three-star linebackers moving to Kalamazoo this fall.

There might be concern at tackle; WMU really only played two of them with regularity last year, and one (David Curle) is gone. Braster is big enough to move inside at times, and senior Andre Turner is back, but WMU will be relying on some green players on the interior.

If the run defense holds up, though, I like the odds of the pass defense improving. Corners Sam Beal, Darius Phillips, and Obbie Jackson combined for five interceptions and 21 breakups last year, and three-star youngsters like Dontre Boyd, Emmanuel Jackson, or K.J. Anderson could be ready to help sooner than later. The safety position is a bit more of an unknown with the loss of Justin Ferguson, but he missed four games last year, and sophomore Davontae Ginwright got his feet wet in his absence. Former star recruit Justin Tranquill, meanwhile, more than held his own as a freshman and is taking on a leadership role as a sophomore.

If the Broncos can force opponents to pass, the combination of Daoust’s aggression, a decent pass rush, and a better secondary could take advantage.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Western Michigan at Ohio
Darius Phillips
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

WMU has a couple of legs to replace. Punter James Coleman, who ranked 11th in punt success rate and allowed opponents to return just six punts all year, graduated. Meanwhile, after a sturdy freshman year as a place-kicker, sophomore-to-be Butch Hampton left Kalamazoo to pursue a soccer career. That’s quite a special teams reset.

Meanwhile, WMU’s return units were all-or-nothing in 2016 — Darius Phillips scored on a punt return and a kick return, but the Broncos ranks just 95th in kick return success rate and 58th on punts — and should continue to be so this fall.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at USC 7 -26.6 6%
9-Sep at Michigan State 44 -9.7 29%
16-Sep Idaho 119 14.4 80%
23-Sep Wagner NR 22.0 90%
30-Sep Ball State 90 7.5 67%
7-Oct at Buffalo 128 15.5 82%
14-Oct Akron 122 16.0 82%
21-Oct at Eastern Michigan 96 4.1 59%
1-Nov Central Michigan 97 9.2 70%
8-Nov Kent State 123 16.0 82%
15-Nov at Northern Illinois 86 1.8 54%
24-Nov at Toledo 59 -7.9 32%
Projected S&P+ Rk 74
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 84 / 54
Projected wins 7.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.3 (35)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 73 / 76
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 18 / 2.9
2016 TO Luck/Game +5.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 46% (15%, 78%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 11.4 (1.6)

A team that reaches an all-time peak and loses its head coach is guaranteed to regress. It applies to Western Kentucky. It is not the hottest of takes to suggest that the Broncos are not going to go 13-1 in 2017.

Still, Lester has quite a bit of experience and inherits exciting pieces from Fleck. The passing game will regress, but the run game might be strong enough to lean on. The run defense might get gashed, but the pass defense could be excellent.

WMU isn’t projected as the best team in the MAC — those honors go to perpetual bridesmaid Toledo — but the Broncos are still No. 2. They’ll probably win seven or eight games and bowl for the fourth year in a row. After season-opening road trips to USC and Michigan State, they could be favored in each of the next nine games.

It’s hard to move on from one of the country’s most unique coaches. But in Lester, WMU landed someone who is uniquely experienced and extremely Western Michigan.


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