Ryan Cubit begins his sixth year of eligibility after suffering a knee injury early last year. He is slated as the starter entering the fall. Cubit, the son of the head coach, connected on 60% of his passes with 6 TDs and 3 INTs during his three-game injury plagued 2005 season. Thomas Peregrin, a highly regarded JUCO, is the backup and ready to assume the starters role if called upon. Peregrin threw for over 4,600 yards and 39 TDs during his two-year JUCO stint. Caleb Clark is the 3rd string QB. Last year’s starter, Tim Hiller, earned the conference freshman of the year award after throwing for 20 TDs and just 3 INTs. He injured his knee during at NIU during the final game of the season and will likely miss the entire 2006 season.
Running Backs The Broncos had success running the ball last year behind 1,000-yard rusher Trovon Riley. Riley has graduated now but the coaching staff is optimistic that their team’s 146-yard per game rushing attack will only get better. Mark Bonds looks to be the starter as the 5-10 220-pounder has speed and power. Bonds averaged 4.5-yards per carry in 2005. Jamarko Simmons is another big back at 6-2 231-pounds. Kirk Elsworth returned kicks last year on special teams, should get a bigger role in the backfield this year. Three true freshmen enter the fall with a chance to play right away – Bobby Crawford, Glenis Thompson and Brandon West all have impressive prep credentials.
Receivers/Tight Ends Gone are two of the MAC’s best skilled players ever. WR Greg Jennings broke almost all school and conference records for receptions, yards and TDs while TE Tony Scheffler was a huge target who dominated his position. Both were NFL draft picks in April. Nine returning receivers and a pair of junior college transfers need to pull together and do what Jennings did each and every game last season – make big plays. Joe Capple, Chris Maragos, Kelly Martin and Ben Bleck-Owens are the starting receivers with Herb Martin and Stephen Penn added to provide immediate depth this fall. Highly regarded true freshman Juan Nunez may figure into the mix. Brandon Ledbetter and Matt Stevens are the tight ends. A pair of highly recruited freshmen, Ben Hunderman and James O’Neill may see playing time this fall too.
Offensive Linemen The line did a nice job last year paving the way for running backs and protecting a true freshman QB. The Broncos gave up just 24 sacks on 385 passing attempts, just 6% per attempt and the team averaged 4-yards per rushing attempt. Center Robbie Krutilla has a chance at all-conference honors while Dominic Moran is the lone senior starter. James Blair, Matt Williams, Rob Johnson, Dezman Gray and Steve Ellingsen all provide quality experience. The program is morning the loss of former starter Chris Bartula, who committed suicide at the end of March.
Defensive Linemen Nick Varcadipane recorded 50 tackles and 5.5 QB sacks as a freshman last year. He is quickly becoming one of the top interior pass rushers in the league. Cory Flom is a pure nose guard with his size and strength. John Russell, Andy Laue, Grant Nemeth, Cody Cielenski and true freshman Chris Pyant add depth to the interior line. Anthony Belmonte and Zach Davidson are the defensive ends. Matt Ludeman and true freshman Jaymeson Moody is a speed DE from Fort Lauderdale (FL) – he could see action as a pass rush specialist right away. Overall there is good speed along the defensive line but not a lot of size. Nine of the eleven players listed above are freshmen or sophomores.
Linebackers The Broncos have one of the best linebackers in the MAC. Ameer Ishmail moved from tailback to OLB and earned 1st team All MAC honors last season after recording 93 tackles, 8 QB sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He is a prime candidate for the conference defensive player of the year award. Dustin Ducio is an experienced and solid MLB while converted strong safety Paul Thitoff has performed very well at the other OLB position. There is good depth and athleticism with backups Cornelius Robinson, Greg Marshall, Austin Pritchard and Nic Saad. Overall the linebacking corps is one of the team’s deepest positions with 16 returning players in this area.
Defensive Backs At first glance, Western looked to be dreadful in the defensive backfield until you drill down farther and notice that they often used four freshmen during the 2005 season. After giving up an average of 300-yards through the air per game, these well-seasoned sophomores should be much better in 2006. CB EJ Biggers has the potential to be a real star in the league in the not so distant future. True freshman Andy Dorcely has impressive prep credentials and may see time this fall.
Special Teams Nate Meyer and Jim Laney return as place kicker and punter respectively. Each is 6-4 and over 200-pounds. How often do you see a pair of 6-4 kickers on a college team? Meyer was 12 of 19 last season and is very accurate inside of 40-yards. Janey averaged 41-yards per punt. All-everything Greg Jennings has graduated leaving DBs EJ Biggers and Louis Delmas as the return specialists.
Final Thoughts A year ago I correctly stated that Western Michigan would make the quantum leap from 1-10 to 7-4. They did just that. It was easy to predict since there was so much offensive talent last year and the fact that Western played by far the league’s most favorable schedule. But the schedule maker was not nearly as kind to Western this year. Instead of playing Buffalo and Kent State, Miami and Akron appear this year. Instead of hosting Ball State and arch rival Central Michigan, those games are on the road in 2006. Gone also are two of the best skilled players in MAC history - WR Greg Jennings and TE Tony Scheffler have both moved on to the NFL. Those playmakers will be very hard to replace. Offensively the Broncos will have a hard time maintaining a 30-point per game average. Defensively the Broncos will be improved but will it be enough against the difficult schedule? Last year Western was not as good as their record indicated while this year they will not be as bad as their record may be if in fact they finish 3-9 as predicted. The Broncos are a very young team right now with only 32 players listed as either seniors or juniors on their spring roster. Coach Bill Cubit definitely has this team headed in the right direction – but it may not show in the win column this fall.
Mark it down! The Broncos will crush Temple. Last year, Western had to kick a field goal as time expired to beat the Owls in Philadelphia. This year WMU should have little problem beating a Temple football program that is going through major transition.
Schedule Analysis The non-conference schedule is brutal, especially compared to last season. In 2005, Western played Virginia, Temple and Southern Illinois. This year the non-league games are the Cavaliers and Owls again, but road trips to Florida State and Indiana have also been added. Crossover games are equally as brutal with Ohio, Miami and Akron replacing Buffalo, BG and Kent State.
Most Important Game Hosting Toledo on September 9. Most likely the Broncos will lose a close game at Indiana the week before, although that is a contest against the Broncos can win. Playing Toledo in the home opener means a big crowd and a chance to get off to a terrific league start after posting an encouraging 7-4 campaign last season. Toledo has dominated this series the last few years so this game is a major litmus test for the progress of the Bronco program.