2009 Western Michigan Preview - Defense
Western Michigan LB Austin Pritchard
Western Michigan LB Austin Pritchard
Posted May 12, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Western Michigan Bronco Defense

Western Michigan Broncos

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Western Michigan Preview | 2009 WMU Offense
- 2009 WMU Defense | 2009 WMU Depth Chart
- 2008 WMU Preview | 2007 WMU Preview | 2006 WMU Preview 

What you need to know: The entire defense returned last year and the results weren’t anything special. The Broncos were mediocre overall, but they were great at getting into the backfield. That’ll be the case again with a good linebacking corps that’ll do a little of everything right and a front four that can get make big plays. There isn’t much size in the front seven, but that’s hardly the biggest issue. The secondary struggled last year with four great starters returning, and now they all have to be replaced. Miami transfer Doug Wiggins will be a good new safety leading a secondary that won’t be as bad as it might appear.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Austin Pritchard, 86
Sacks: Justin Braska, 6
Interceptions: Several at 1

Star of the defense: Senior LB Austin Pritchard
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Josh Price
Unsung star on the rise: Junior FS Doug Wiggins
Best pro prospect: Pritchard
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Pritchard, 2) LB Mitch Zajac, 3) S Mario Armstrong
Strength of the defense: Quickness, plays in the backfield
Weakness of the defense: Experienced defensive backs, size in the front seven

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Gone is the star of the defensive front, Nick Varcadipane at defensive tackle. Getting the first shot to take over is Drew Nowak, a 6-4, 250-pound undersized option who should be great at getting into the backfield. Needing to be part of a rotation because of his size, he made 11 tackles as a freshman to do along with a sack with two tackles for loss. He’s a pure pass rusher who needs to be camped out in opposing backfields to be a factor for the front.

Next to him will be senior Cody Cielenski, a regular along the line who started the final five games of the year finishing with 36 tackles, four sacks and ten tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 280 pounds, he’s one of the team’s biggest linemen and will have to hold down the fort on the nose. He might be one of the team’s most valuable players; the line can’t afford to use his bulk.

Part of the mix on the right side will be redshirt freshman Freddie Bishop, an excellent athlete who has 6-4, 247-pound size to go along with his speed. He’ll be given every shot to grow into a pass rushing specialist.  

There will be a rotation of players on the right side with 6-4, 245-pound sophomore Weston Peiffer getting the first look. He got the start against Eastern Michigan and saw time in eight games as a true freshman, but he only made one tackle with a sack. With his quickness, he has the potential to grow into a top pass rusher.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Justin Braska was a nice reserve who started over the second half of the season in place of Greg Marshall. The 6-4, 234-pounder was one of the team’s best all-around defenders with 52 tackles and a team-leading six tackles and ten tackles for loss. With a non-stop motor and good want-to when it comes to getting to the quarterback, he has the potential to be a statistical star once again.

Looking to take over an end job right away is T.J. Lynch, a 6-3, 238-pound JUCO transfer who’s a pure pass rusher who was a tackling machine in high school. Extremely active, he has to be the all-around playmaker the defensive line will be missing on the other side of Braska.

Adding a little bit of experience to the inside is Chris Pyant, a 6-3, 269-pound tackle who saw time in six games and made two stops. Very quick with good strength, he handles himself well on the nose for his size. 

Bringing more bulk is 6-0, 275-pound redshirt freshman Ryan Byrne, a bowling ball of a defender who was a strong high school wrestler and a good interior pass rusher in high school. He’s a strong all-around athlete who can do a little of everything well, and now he’ll have to show it all off playing behind Drew Nowak at tackle.

Watch Out For ... a major rotation. Size is a problem and experience is a big issue. It’ll take time before the undeveloped backups are ready for prime time, while the starters will need help, too.
Quickness. The Broncos have athleticism and pass rushers at all four spots. The line should be able to get into the backfield from inside and out.
Depth. There’s nothing to count on behind the starters, while the front four also needs work. This is a very, very young, inexperienced group that’ll be great next year, but there will be some growing pains.
Outlook: The defensive front was a bit of a disappointment last year with so much talent and experience returning, but there won’t be the same expectations for this year’s group. Justin Braska is a fantastic pass rusher, but he needs help as the line needs to find a few all-around playmakers who can stop the run as well as get into the backfield. The tackles will get behind the line, but there will be major problems against power running teas. If Cody Ceilenski goes down, there won’t be any size whatsoever.
Rating: 5


Projected Starters: Austin Pritchard was supposed to be a star two years ago, but he hurt his knee and was out for the season. He came back healthy and was an all-star, settling in at the weakside spot over the second half of the season finishing with 86 tackles, two sacks, and 12.5 tackles for loss. This year, the 6-4, 233-pound senior will bring his tremendous speed and athleticism to the strongside, where he started four times last season.

Back again in the middle is Mitch Zajac, a 6-1, 220-pound senior who started in the middle over the final five games of last year and finished with 29 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He’s not all that big, but he’s tough, mobile, and decent in pass coverage. Now that he knows what he’s doing, he should be a statistical star.

6-4, 220-pound redshirt freshman Chris Prom spent last year as a star scout teamer and now will be the main man on the weakside. A top tight end recruit, he’s a phenomenal athlete who can jump out of the stadium and be a key pass rusher in certain situations.

Projected Top Reserves
Waymon Ross will turn into the team’s main backup at outside linebacker on both sides after spending last year on the scout team. The 6-1, 225-pound redshirt freshman is a fantastic tackler and should eventually blossom into a strong pass rusher.

6-0, 215-pound sophomore Matt Pickens was a good recruit for the program and has the speed and range to grow into one of the team's top producers, but he hasn’t shown it off yet. After making just four tackles two years ago, he saw a little bit of time last season and didn’t do much of anything. He’ll combine with 240-pound redshirt freshman Deauntay Legner and 5-10, 230-pound redshirt freshman Joe Smith in the middle to back up Zajac.

6-0, 220-pound junior Harrison Porter got a few starts on the outside over the first half of the season but he only saw time in eight games. Injuries have kept him from becoming a regular contributor, but he was still able to come up with 21 tackles, a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and an interception. Now he’ll be the try to come back to be the main man on the weakside.

Watch Out For ... Ross. He’ll work with 6-3, 210-pound Doug Scott, a promising redshirt freshman who has the wheels to grow into a situational pass rusher. The Broncos need quality reserve linebackers, and Ross will be counted on to do big things early on with Scott not far behind.
Speed and quickness. Size is sacrificed for speed, and while this group will have problems with tough running teams, it’s great at getting to the ball and making plays behind the line. All three players can swarm.
Proven backups. This was an issue last year, and the team turned out to do just fine with a lot of 4-2-5 alignments when needed. There are some promising athletic players like Ross and Scott to get excited about, but they haven’t done anything yet. Injuries to the starting three would be disastrous.
Outlook: The Broncos are still in a bit of a rebuilding mode at linebacker after the tremendous corps of a few years ago that blew threw everything in its path, but this group has the potential to be excellent. Austin Pritchard is a terror on the outside, while Mitch Zajac is emerging as a star in the middle. Now there has to be more big plays, more takeaways, and more stops into the backfield. Last year was about everyone getting their feet wet. This year is about producing.
Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Three starters are gone off last year’s underachieving secondary, but they’ll all be missed. The biggest hole is at free safety where Louis Delmas is off to be an NFL star after leading the team with 111 tackles and four interceptions. Doug Wiggins might not be Delmas, but he could be really, really good. The 6-0, 180-pound junior transfer from Miami has next-level speed and big-time upside. He was a tremendous recruit for the Hurricanes two years ago, but he didn’t fit.

The other big hole is at one corner spot with Londen Fryar gone. While he hasn’t seen a lot of time, 6-0, 194-pound Andy Dorcely is the only senior in the secondary and he has been a backup for the last few years. Able to play corner or free safety, the speedster was a good high school receiver who made four tackles in a limited role after making eight stops in 2007.

Working at the other corner spot in place of E.J. Biggers is David Lewis, a 5-10, 170-pound sophomore who made two tackles in a limited time; he missed most of the year with a broken arm. While he’s not all that big, he has tremendous speed and the potential to be used as a kick and punt returner if needed.

Mario Armstrong is back after being a spot starter at strong safety and finishing with 64 tackles with an interception and three broken up passes. The 6-0, 188-pound junior has been a key part of the secondary for the last two years and has shown flashes of being the team’s next-big-thing safety with speed and nice hitting ability. He could play either safety spot or be used in a nickel role.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Jamail Berry will be used from time to time at free safety if Doug Wiggins isn’t quite ready. He only made 11 tackles, but the former JUCO transfer is versatile enough to play either safety spot and he’s a good open field tackler.

The new star of the show should eventually be Josh Price, a nice hitting 6-0, 195-pound sophomore who made 18 tackles and a sack in a backup role. One of the team’s fastest players, he can be used as a corner or be used at either safety spot if needed.

With help desperately needed for the secondary, receiver Deshon Lawrence will move over to corner to play behind Josh Price. Extremely fast, the 6-0, 175-pound sophomore will be on the field in a variety of ways in nickel and dime packages.

Watch Out For ... Wiggins. He comes in with plenty of hype and a lot of potential, and WMU might be in big trouble if he’s not the real deal. The secondary needs him to be a major league producer from day one.
Hitters. All Western Michigan defensive backs are able to pop. Sometimes that’s been a problem, going for the big hit over the routine, but there aren’t going to be many misses.
Veterans. A strength going into last year, now there are just two lettermen returning and no starters. There will be some growing pains to go through, but the production can’t be too much worse than it was last year.
Outlook: A disappointment last year, finishing 12th in the MAC and 102nd in the nation even with all four starters returning, nothing will be expected out of this year’s secondary. Doug Wiggins, a transfer from Miami, is needed to take over the role as the team’s top safety with Louis Delmas gone, but the real star will likely be Mario Armstrong, who should be among the team’s top tacklers. There need to be more interceptions and more third down stops after struggling against anyone who could throw.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Sophomore John Potter came up with a nice year hitting 11-of-16 field goals, but he didn’t show off his big leg. He missed both his attempts from beyond 50 yards with his longest kick coming from 45 yards out. He’ll be fine with more time and more experience.

Sophomore Ben Armer struggled in his first year even though he averaged 40.6 yards per kick. The coverage teams didn’t give him a lot of help, but he didn’t do enough to air it out; he needs more hang time after only forcing two fair catches.

Running backs Brandon West and Aaron Winchester are solid kickoff returners with West averaging 22.8 yards per try and Winchester averaging 23.5 yards per return. Miami transfer Doug Wiggins is getting the first shot at replacing Schneider Julien as the team’s top punt returner. It won’t be tough with Julien averaging just 6.2 yards per try.
Watch Out For ... the special teams to be better. After struggling through two freshmen kickers and a mediocre punt return game, there should be far more production all across the board.
Kickoff returns. West is a veteran who has been steady for the last two years, while Winchester provided even more pop last year.
Punt coverage. This will likely improve as Arner starts hanging up his kicks a bit more, but the Broncos can’t allow 13.3 yards per return.
Outlook: The numbers weren’t there last year and there wasn’t much to get excited about other than the kickoff return game and the emergence of John Potter as a decent placekicker. With almost everyone returning, and Doug Wiggins coming in as the new punt returner, the special teams could quietly be one of the team’s biggest areas of improvement.
Rating: 6.5