Kalamazoo — Western Michigan second-year head coach Tim Lester was encouraged by the play of his receivers during spring practice, a position of inexperience a year ago when the Broncos finished 6-6 and missed playing in a bowl game.
With multiple running backs out of the lineup while recovering from late season injuries, the focus was on the receivers and they all benefited from the work to put them in much better position when practice begins this summer in preparation for the Aug. 31 opener against Syracuse at Waldo Stadium, then a Week No. 2 game at Michigan.
Lester is looking for a more balanced attack with junior Jon Wassink gaining valuable experience from his first year at quarterback, helping the Broncos to a 5-3 start before suffering a shoulder injury in a win at Eastern Michigan.
Wassink missed the final four games, but could have played in a bowl game if the Broncos would have played in one. He led the Mid-American Conference in completion percentage (.642) at the time of his injury, throwing for 1,411 yards and 14 TDs and had a strong spring.
“I feel good, the collarbone feels great, throwing motion feels good,” Wassink said after the spring game March 31. “Every offense has to be balanced between run and pass and last year we probably leaned too heavily on the run so this spring was definitely a time for us to get better in the pass game so in the fall we have a more balanced attack.
“Our receivers are better than they were a year ago and I am too, and what’s great about it is we had no graduating wide receiver that played last year so we can all grow together the next two years which is awesome. I’d have to say this spring Hunter Broersma got a lot better at wide receiver, I also thought Ryan Lezzer got a lot better, those are just a couple of guys who stuck out.”
Sure, the Broncos lost the school’s all-time leading rusher Jarvion Franklin (4,867 yards) to graduation, but Jamauri Bogan and Levante Bellamy are supposed to be back from their leg injuries, plus Wassink will once again have receivers in junior Keishawn Watson (41 receptions, 7 TDs), junior D’Wayne Eskridge (30 receptions, team-high 506 yards, 3 TDs) and Anton Curtis (18-211) to work with.
And, second-year receivers Hunter Broersma, Ryan Lezzer, Tyron Arnett and Jaylen Hall (Macomb Dakota) were all impressive at times during spring practice.
“The QBs and the wide receiver core is gelling nicely,” Wassink said. “We had a few injuries to the wide-outs so in the summer we’ll have to get those guys a little caught up because we kind of implemented a new offense, but that’s what the summer’s for so we’ll gell even more this summer.
“This is kind of like my third offense in three years so I’m kind of used to learning new stuff and a lot of the concepts are the same. We’re doing a little bit different RPO game so our run-pass-option game is a little bit different than it has been in the past.”
Wassink plans on being more of a leader now that he is a veteran quarterback, making sure that the quarterbacks and receivers are playing at a higher level this fall.
“We have about four months here where the coaches can’t practice with us, can’t be on the field with the coaches so I’d say in terms of leadership and getting the wide outs and quarterbacks on the same page, I think that’s where my preparation has gone up a bit,” Wassink said. “I felt I had command in the offense last season. I think one thing I need to get better at is just being more confident reading defenses and making more decisive decisions.”
Lester said spring ball was dedicated to getting the passing game better.
“The biggest thing is our passing game, that was my goal,” Lester said. “I came in here knowing we could run it, and knowing our top five running backs were out so we were going to throw it. I don’t think anybody believed me that we were going to throw it as much as we did. We threw it and we threw it effectively. Our running game was good, but it will be great when we get a couple of running backs back and a couple linemen back.
“The only way to get good at a passing game is to throw it. You don’t want to hinder your run game by throwing it too much, but this was the perfect spring because I really couldn’t hinder our run game so we threw it and I think we have more confidence in it right now.”
And, Lester is thrilled with the progress of his quarterbacks.
“It’s great to have a guy who knows where he’s going with the ball and doesn’t put the ball in harm’s way,” said Lester of Wassink. “And, young Kaleb Eleby is a fun, young player too and he’s pushing Jon. And, Jon’s a smart kid and he knows how good Kaleb is playing which is great for him. I tell people all the time competition is the best for everybody.”
Freshman Kaleb Eleby impressed Lester during his first camp and more than likely will be Wassink’s backup with Reece Goddard leaving the program after starting the last four games as a true freshman last season, going 1-3.
“The last four games were really hard on him,” said Lester of Goddard. “He struggled and was out there too soon. We kept trying to love on him and love on him and love on him, but once you lose your confidence as a quarterback it’s done.
“Even at the beginning of spring, he wasn’t throwing the ball as well. He was missing targets and it was all just confidence. His eyes were a little bit bigger, like he was playing Toledo and feeling he was going to get hit again. He just lost his passion. I loved that kid, didn’t want to lose that kid, but he lost his passion, his confidence.”
And, of Eleby, a three-star recruit, who graduated early so he could get a head start on his college career?
“He’s got a strong arm and he’s really aggressive,” said Lester of Eleby. “I give him a lot of options out there. I coach quarterbacks differently as far as giving him the keys and letting them go and he always makes the aggressive decision.
“Between his release and his arm strength, he can fit the ball in places that no one else on the team can right now. He understands what’s going on. He’s way ahead of a guy who should be going to Senior Prom. I’m happy with his production.”
Senior Sam Beal returns at one cornerback, but Lester must replace talented Darius Phillips who could well be playing on Sunday afternoons this fall.
And, sophomore Emanuel Jackson (Novi) could well be starting at corner, battling junior Obbie Jackson (West Bloomfield) for Phillips’ spot with juniors Justin Tranquill, Davontae Ginwright (Southfield) and Stefan Claiborne (Chippewa Valley) giving the Broncos a strong secondary.
“Unbelievable spring,” said Lester of Jackson. “He’s an offensive guy in high school and he’s making the transition right now. Defensively, him, Najee (linebacker Clayton), there’s been a couple of guys who really stood out and grew a ton. He’s confident. He’s really come along as far his patience, his hand placement at the line of scrimmage. He has a bright future for a young kid.”