2011 Western Michigan Preview – Defense

Posted Jun 18, 2011

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Western Michigan Broncos

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: The defense finally stepped up and produced as expected with defensive coordinator Dave Cohen taking over the job and getting far more out of a group that always had the athleticism, but struggled to put it all together. The defensive front wasn't a rock against the run on a regular basis, but it was far better at getting into the backfield and generating pressure on the quarterback. Now the line should be phenomenal with all four starters back and plenty of depth to form a good rotation. Mitch Zajac is a tough veteran middle linebacker who'll have everything funneled his was in the 4-2-5 alignment, and the secondary is loaded with speed and quickness with the ability to clean up everything the front six doesn't take care of. Young corners Lewis Toler and Garrett Smith should become one of the best tandems in the MAC over the next few years.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Mitch Zajac, 97
Sacks: Paul Hazel, 8
Interceptions: Lewis Toler, 5

Star of the defense: Sophomore CB Lewis Toler
Player who has to step up and be a star: Sophomore LB Dezmond Bozeman
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman CB Garrett Smith
Best pro prospect: Senior SS Doug Wiggins
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Toler, 2) DE Paul Hazel, 3) LB Mitch Zajac
Strength of the defense: Line, Secondary Athleticism
Weakness of the defense: Run Defense, Linebacker Depth

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The defensive front struggled against the run but kept up the WMU tradition of being able to get into the backfield. After struggling to get behind the line two years ago, last year's front four finished third in the MAC in sacks and fourth in tackles for loss, and now has the potential to be even stronger with all four starters back along with a few veteran reserves with good starting experience.

The most dangerous playmaker of the group is junior defensive end Paul Hazel, a Miami native who finished the year with 45 tackles with a team-leading eight sacks, seven quarterback hurries, and 12 tackles for loss. Quick off the ball, he makes up for his thin 6-5, 210-pound size with excellent speed and athleticism as a pass rushing specialist from the right side. He'll be backed up by 6-4, 251-pound sophomore Cory Sueing who brings more size to the right end spot. He saw time in 11 games as a reserve making four tackles with a sack.

Back on the left side is 6-4, 253-pound junior Freddie Bishop after making 28 tackles with four sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss as a six game starter. After starting out the year as a key reserve, he took over the job and should be the main man for the next three years with a great combination of speed and size. While he's not Hazel off the ball, he's a good enough pass rusher to worry about. Also in the rotation is veteran Deauntay Legrier, an eight game starter who came up with 32 stops with three sacks and five tackles for loss seeing time at both end spots. At 6-1 and 249 pounds he isn't a natural end, and he's built like a thick middle linebacker, but he's a good run stopper who's always working.

Trying to plug things up on the inside is 6-4, 292-pound senior Drew Nowak, a big presence with 19 career starts making 42 tackles with a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. Active and always working, he's a stat-sheet filler from the inside with just enough quickness to generate a good push on the interior. 6-3, 260-pound redshirt freshman Brendon Gannon is an undersized tackle with the athleticism to be a pass rusher and good option against the spread running teams.

5-11, 303-pound Travonte Boles is a bowling ball of a tackle and an ideal fit for the nose. Stout, tough, and good against the run, he made 31 tackles with four tackles for loss as a true freshman, and now the Florida native might turn out to be the anchor for the run defense. His job is to sit on the inside and eat everything up, while 6-5, 288-pound junior Paul Dreher is a big, tall walk-on who made six tackles after missing most of the first half of the year hurt.

Former JUCO transfer T.J. Lynch will likely end up starting in spots on the outside once he comes back healthy. He missed all of last year hurt, and he didn't exactly set the world on fire in 2009 making seven tackles and half a sack in nine games. At 6-4 and 253 pounds the senior is built like a tall outside linebacker, and he's extremely active with pure pass rushing skills. He was a tackling machine in high school and isn't afraid to hit.
Watch Out For … Boles. He's a big, fun tackle to watch stuff the run. He might not be a pass rusher and he doesn't move all that much, but as he goes on he'll get more and more used to beating people up on the inside.
Strength: Experience and pass rush. Bishop, Hazel, Nowak, Boles, and Legrier are all returning starters who all know what they're doing. Those five combined for 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss.
Weakness: Run defense. It's not like the line was bad, and it only gave up 13 touchdown runs with four coming in the opener against Michigan State, but it could be a bit tougher and more consistent. There's no reason Eastern Michigan should run for 277 yards on this group.
Outlook: Line coach Lou Esposito generated more pass rush and more production out of a promising line, and now the sky's the limit with so much returning experience and talent. This might not be the best defensive line in the MAC, but it'll be ultra-productive.
Unit Rating: 5.5


State of the Unit: The linebacking corps only gets one starter back to a group that wasn't great against the run, but it was active and did a solid job of holding up at times against some of the better offenses. The line should be good enough to pick up the slack for a while, but the linebackers will eventually hold up their end of the bargain.

The lone returning starter also happens to be the team's leading tackler last year. 6-1, 229-pound senior Mitch Zajac came up with 97 tackles with two sacks and four tackles for loss in the middle, and he's the one who'll keep everything together. He's not all that big but he has great range and good toughness against the run making 14 tackles against Eastern Michigan and 15 tackles against Kent State as part of a phenomenal three game run of 39 tackles. While there won't be too many plays made in the backfield, he'll be the team's leading tackler.

Stepping in on the weakside is sophomore Dezmond Bozeman, a 6-0, 227-pound speedster who made seven tackles in his first season before getting hurt. He moves perfectly well for the position and he has the big hitting ability to hold up well against the run, and given a little bit of time he should be a flash into the backfield. Backing him up will be 6-3, 233-pound sophomore Chris Prom, who started two games and made 31 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss. The former star tight end recruit hasn't blown up to be the stat-sheet filler he was expected to be, but he has the athleticism and the skills to shine as a strongside defender if the defense goes to a 4-3.

6-0, 222-pound redshirt freshman Nick Galvin is a good-looking inside prospect who'll work behind Zajac in the middle and will likely take over next year. He can play on the strongside and be a decent run stopper, but this year he'll strictly work as an understudy and as an emergency option.

Watch Out For … Bozeman. Dex Jones was a former transfer from Wisconsin was a strong athlete who came up with 46 tackles with 5.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, but he was booted off the team. Bozeman needs to step in and shine now on the weakside, and he will.
Strength: Zajac. A good, sound defender who knows what he's doing, he's perfect to revolve the defense around. With the line taking care of business with several good veterans to rely on, Zajac should be able to run free to make play after play.
Weakness: Experience. Zajac is a given and Prom started two games last year, but WMU is loaded with linebacker-sized players all over the defense but doesn't really have any linebackers.
Outlook: It depends on what kind of an alignment the defense goes with, but mostly it'll run with a 4-2-5 alignment that'll occasionally rotate in a third defender. Last year, the linebackers appeared to be ready to blow up this season, but Jones is gone and Deauntay Legrier moved to the defensive front. There are options, but for now it'll be up to the two starters to clean everything up.
Unit Rating: 5

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: The secondary wasn't anything special, but that was partly because teams bombed away to keep up with the high-octane WMU offense. Work is needed to be done after losing the team's second leading tackler, Jamail Berry, and third leading tackler, Mario Armstrong, but there are some great young players ready to do more and two promising corners who'll get thrown into the fire.

WMU uses a fifth defensive back as a Rover and part linebacker, and sophomore Johnnie Simon will take over for Berry and his 94 tackles after coming up with a great true freshman season making 24 tackles with two forced fumbles and two broken up passes. At 6-0 and 180 pounds the Florida native isn't that big but he has unlimited range and he should be terrific against the pass 6-1, 193-pound fifth-year senior Keith Dixson, one of the team's fastest players with Michigan state championship high jumping skills and blazing speed. He came up with 30 tackles in 2009 and followed it up with 22 tackles with a pick.

Senior Doug Wiggins has been a key nickel defender and free safety, but he'll start at strong safety after making 55 tackles with two broken up passes. The former transfer from Miami didn't do nearly enough when the ball was in the air and needs to use his speed and 5-10, 209-pound size a little bit more, and he has to show why he was such a big-time recruit for the Hurricanes.

5-10, 188-pound true sophomore Demetrius Pettway was one of the team's top recruits last year and he showed why with 33 tackles with a tackle for loss and a forced fumble in eight games of action. Now getting the starting job at free safety, he has the ability and the talent to be one of the team's leading tacklers and one of the most productive all-around playmakers. He'll be joined in the rotation by 6-2, 194-pound junior Scott Hinds, a strong safety by nature who made 23 tackles over the last two seasons as a reserve.

Taking over at the boundary corner job is redshirt freshman Garrett Smith, a 5-9, 170-pound tackler from Florida with tremendous quickness and the hitting ability to make big stops against the run. He won't necessarily be put on an island, but he'll settle a position that had four different starters last year. 6-0, 156-pound sophomore Raheam Buxton started five times making 25 tackles with a pick and two broken up passes, and while he's not that big, he's a willing tackler. 6-1, 188-pound sophomore Tronic Williams is one of the team's biggest corners. He got a start against Kent State finishing his first year with eight tackles.

5-10, 172-pound sophomore Lewis Toler started every game at the field corner spot finishing fourth on the team with 59 tackles with five interceptions and nine broken up passes. The team's defensive MVP, he was terrific all season long as the surest all-around playmaker. A star high school wide receiver as well as a defensive back, he's a baller. Backing him up is 5-11, 186-pound junior Dervon Wallace who's moving over from wide receiver after catching six career passes for 101 yards. He's an elite athlete who should add pop to the position, even if he's a little raw as a corner.

Watch Out For … the young corners. Toler is a star who'll earn All-MAC honors while Smith is a good looking prospect who'll man one spot for the next four years. The two are way too athletic and way too good for the pass defense to not be better.
Strength: Athleticism. The five defensive backs in the starting mix form one of the MAC's quickest secondaries. There's tremendous speed and range with everyone able to hit. At some point this year this group will shut someone down cold on straight athleticism.
Weakness: Consistency. The problem is that the Broncos got a wee bit worse as the season went on, allowing 200 yards or more in each of the last five games and getting bombed on by teams that couldn't throw the ball like Kent State and Eastern Michigan.
Outlook: A disaster for years, the secondary started to improve last season and has the talent and the skill to be far better. The young corners will grow into the respective jobs, and there are plenty of good options for the three safety jobs. Now the production has to come.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: Senior John Potter was a nice kicker for a few years, and then he turned in a phenomenal season connecting on 10-of-12 field goals. He doesn't have a huge leg with range topping out at inside 45 yards. He missed a 46-yarder against Central Michigan and missed a 29-yarder against Ball State, but that was it. As steady as they come, he'll win a game or two for the Broncos.

The punting game wasn't all that great, finishing 84th in the nation, but senior Ben Armer wasn't that bad averaging 41.2 yards per kick with 17 put inside the 20. He has a big leg and he can bomb it over 50 yards a crack from time to time, but he has to limit the touchbacks after putting it in the end zone seven times and he has to help out the struggling punt coverage team.

Running back Brian Fields was the team's main kickoff returner averaging 20.5 yards per try, but Dervon Wallace will get the most work after coming up with a whopping 27.2 yards per try with a 91-yard return for a touchdown. Dareyon Chance and Jordan White will combine forces on the punt return duties after White averaged 6.1 yards per try and Chance was stuffed for -11 yards on his one attempt.

Watch Out For … the punt return game. White and Chance are too fast and too good to not be far better. There's no reason WMU should be 94th in the nation in punt returns.
Strength: The kicking game. The net results might not be great, but Armer is a sound, veteran punter who can air it out from time to time. Potter will hit everything from 40 yards and in.
Weakness: Punt returns. White just couldn't seem to bust loose and even a Brian Fields 26-yard return couldn't help the average. The punt coverage team hasn't been great for years, and it wasn't a positive last season allowing just 9.7 yards per try.
Outlook: There are enough positives to give WMU an advantage most of the time in MAC play. The kicking game will be sound, the kickoff coverage should be terrific again, and there are more than enough speedsters to add more to pop from time to time.
Unit Rating: 7

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- 2011 Western Michigan Defense | 2011 Western Michigan Depth Chart
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