An All-Star crew returns to Kalamazoo this fall looking for its first MAC crown under head coach Tim Lester.
The 2021 Broncos “skill position” group will take a huge hit with the loss of second-round NFL draft pick WR D’Wayne Eskridge (Seattle Seahawks, 56th overall selection). Eskridge was a complete player in his time at WMU, impacting the game all over the field. His 768 yards receiving were more than the next two Broncos combined, and he was fourth in the FBS in yards per catch with over 23 yards gained per reception.
Eskridge was a major factor on special teams last year as well, with his 100-yard kickoff return for score was a difference maker in a 30-27 win over Northern Illinois.
Despite the loss of Eskridge, the good news for Broncos fans is that the team is loaded with returning all-MAC talent, with WR Skyy Moore (second-team), RB La’Darius Jefferson (second-team), QB Kaleb Eleby (third-team) and WR Jaylen Hall (third-team) all coming back to Kalamazoo for the 2021 campaign.
Add key transfer WR Bryce Nunnelly to the mix along with one of the best offensive lines in the MAC, and this group should be on track to compete for one of the best offenses in the MAC— and perhaps in the country.
With non-conference games against Michigan and Pittsburgh, the Broncos probably won’t score an average of 41 points per game like they did in 2020; however, with a year of additional physical development and a complete 2021 spring practice under their belts, WMU’s offense could be better in 2021.
That is a scary thought.
We take a look at the groups starting with quarterback.
The 2020 WMU offense was loaded with talent, the perfect situation for breaking in inexperienced, but promising starter Kaleb Eleby (had four starts as a freshman in 2018 and redshirted 2019). In addition to the players named above, Eleby was flanked at left tackle by 2021 San Francisco 49ers’ 5th round draft pick Jaylon Moore.
Eleby took advantage of his great circumstances and blossomed in 2020, finishing third in the country in passing efficiency (195.1), with an amazing touchdown-to-interception ratio of 18:2. It is difficult to imagine how Eleby could improve on such great numbers, but with another year in the system, he could be expected to improve on some finer points in executing the Broncos’ offense and become a better overall player.
The rest of the QB room is relatively new blood, with players like redshirt freshman Nick Kargman and freshman Jack Salopek. The Broncos do have the surrounding cast to protect any of its backup quarterbacks, should any need to step in at any point.
WMU returns its three-headed monster from 2020 in La’Darius Jefferson, Sean Tyler, and Jaxson Kincaide, who will split the load again in 2021. This group formed one of the best units in the MAC in 2020, and should be even better in 2021 with another year to grow and spring practice.
The group is a great mix of power and speed, bringing a nice change of pace to the offense. The unit was led by second-team All-MAC selection Jefferson, a big, punishing runner at 6’1” and about 225 pounds, who averaged over 100 yards per game and had five scores.
Tyler and Kincaide, at around 5’9” and 190 pounds, bring more speed and shiftiness to the party. In 2020, Tyler averaged 6.6 yards per tote while Kincaide led the group with an eye-catching 7 yards per carry.
WMU’s backs were also a factor in the passing game in 2020, with about 20% of the passes going to the backs, led by Tyler with 11 catches. I would expect that trend to continue.
WMU is such a nightmare to defend offensively because their running game is so good, that it sets up chunk plays in the passing game by winning one-on-ones when opponents sell-out to slow down the run. The Broncos excelled as a result in 2020, churning out the 16th-best offense in the country, behind only Kent State, Toledo and Buffalo for best in the MAC.
There is no rest for the weary here; despite the loss of Eskridge, who ran amok in 2020, this group will still be a nightmare for opponents in 2021.
The group starts with the dynamic duo of Jaylen Hall and Skyy Moore. At about 6’4 and 190 pounds, Hall is developing into one of the best deep threats in the nation, having led the FBS in yards per catch in 2020 with 26.9 yards per game in six games. He should win a lot of one-on-one contested catches in 2021.
Skyy Moore was the first true freshman in school history to earn first-team, All-MAC WR honors when he exploded on to the scene in 2019. In just 17 career games as a Bronco, Moore has what would be good career numbers for many MAC WRs, with 68 catches for 1,085 yards and six touchdowns.
As if two All-MAC WRs weren’t enough for opponents to deal with, the Broncos added accomplished FCS transfer Bryce Nunnelly to the mix, who should be eligible to play this fall. Nunnelly’s complete dominance at the FCS level should bode well for his future in the FBS. At Chattanooga, Nunnelly torched the Southern Conference with 143 catches for 2,120 yards and 12 touchdowns en route to back-to-back first-team, all-SoCon honors the last two years.
Brett Borske (6’6”, 275 pounds) and Anthony Torres (6’6”, 260), are linemen-sized tight ends who had a big hand in the success of the Broncos’ rushing attack, positioned on the line or from the H-back position.
The group didn’t play a major role in the passing game in terms of receptions, with Borske leading the group with just four catches; however, based on style of offense WMU runs, both could pick up some valuable first downs or red zone scores in the RPO game, for instance, if called upon. With Broncos TEs frequently moving in motion or crossing the formation to run block, it would be easy for them, despite their size, to be lost in the shuffle and sneak out in the flats or over the middle for a quick hit.
Next week we take a look at Western Michigan’s front seven on defense, who are looking to overcome a key loss in order to improve in 2021.