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Kalamazoo — Jarvion Franklin immediately made his presence felt when he stepped on the Western Michigan campus four years ago, rushing for 1,551 yards to help the Broncos turn a 1-11 program into an 8-5 team to earn Mid-American Conference offensive player of the year honors.

Now, Franklin is entering his senior year and well on his way to leaving as the leading rusher in program history. He has improved his 40 time to 4.48 and is in the best shape of his life.

In fact, Franklin is just 1,400 yards away from cracking the top-20 list for all-time career rushing leaders in FBS history. He ran for 1,300 yards last season to help the Broncos (13-1) earn their first MAC championship since 1988, including a program-record 281 yards in a victory over Akron.

Franklin’s running his freshman year aided the Broncos’ passing game of Zach Terrell and Corey Davis, which developed into one of the nation’s most explosive offenses last season, averaging 41.6 points while earning a Cotton Bowl appearance, a loss to Wisconsin.

Terrell and Davis, who was the No. 5 overall pick by the Titans in the NFL Draft, now are gone so the Broncos will have to rely on their strong rushing attack while red-shirt sophomore Jon Wassink grows in his first year as the starting quarterback.

“We have 100-percent faith in that guy,” Franklin said of Wassink. “He’s so talented and he’s mature, just great on and off the field.”

Western first-year coach Tim Lester, who replaced P.J. Fleck, knows the importance of having a strong running game with a first-year starting quarterback.

“The two cards you want to have in your back pocket if you’re trying to develop a quarterback is defense and a running game,” Lester said. “I think we’re going to have those two things.

“I expect a big year out of Jarvion. Anytime you get a guy who is a senior and his body has changed, he’s faster than he’s ever been, in better shape than he’s ever been. There’s something about that senior year, not that he hasn’t been focused before because he’s a really special kid, but he’ll be ultra-focused in every single game. He’s a guy that you need to give carries to. He has to have touches and the more touches you give him the better player he becomes because he can wear on people like a Bettis and some of those bigger backs, but I think he’s going to have a step that hopefully he hasn’t had before that will make him be more explosive.”

So, where has Franklin developed since his freshman year?

“I do feel like this year when I’m 21 as opposed to 18, I’m not a kid who is not developed,” Franklin said. “Now, I know the game, like the game is actually moving slower than me so I kind of feel like this is going to be more of a finished product. Yes, I won all those awards as a freshman, but I feel like this year we’re after much bigger things.”

Yes, Franklin wants to help the Broncos become back-to-back MAC champions for the first time in school history. From a personal standpoint, he also is on the Walter Camp watch list for the top player in the country.

“First of all, I have to say that’s a tremendous honor and I feel it’s the ultimate team award, to just be on that watch list which goes back to what we did last year,” Franklin said. “Now, this year we plan on going after a lot bigger awards like MAC champion back-to-back and stuff like that so we’ve been working hard to accomplish that.”

The Broncos have former 1,000-yard rusher Jamauri Bogan, Levante Bellamy and Matt Falcon joining Franklin in the backfield. Bogan rushed for 923 yards last season. Bellamy is returning from a knee injury, as is Falcon, a former Michigan commitment and four-star back who hasn’t played since his junior year at Southfield in 2014.

Western should have an outstanding offensive line with three starters back from a unit which only allowed 16 sacks last season, led by senior tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and junior center John Keenoy.

Franklin is looking forward to the challenging schedule which includes a season opener at Southern Cal on Saturday, followed with a trip to Michigan State the following week.

“The stage is set this year so that’s awesome,” Franklin said. “Since I’ve been here we played at Ohio State, and now we’re playing at the Coliseum and at Michigan State so I’m going to get to scratch those stadiums off my bucket list so that’s amazing.

“The first game is USC and that’s all we’re looking forward to. The team’s excited, I can definitely tell you that.”

A LOOK AT WESTERN MICHIGAN

Last season: 13-1 (8-0 MAC West)

Coach: Tim Lester, first year

Outlook: The Broncos are coming off their first MAC championship since 1988, going unbeaten before a Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin. Tim Lester replaces P.J. Fleck, who went on to Minnesota after guiding WMU’s program for four years, including a 29-11 record the past three seasons. Lester was an All-MAC quarterback at WMU, leading the Broncos to the MAC championship game in 1999, a last-second loss to Marshall. Lester will have to replace all-conference first-team performers in quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis (first-round pick of Titans). Jon Wassink takes over at quarterback. Linebacker Robert Spillane returns for a defense that forced 26 turnovers in 2016 to help the Broncos lead the nation in turnover margin (plus-18).

Top players: Jarvion Franklin, Sr., RB, two-time 1,000-yard rusher (1,551 in ’14, 1,300 in ’16); Jamauri Bogan, Jr., RB, former 1,000-yard rusher; Chukwuma Okorafor, Sr., OT, all-conference; John Keenoy, Jr., C, all-conference; Darius Phillips, SR., CB-KR, all-conference; Robert Spillane, Sr., LB, all-conference.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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