Detroit — Western Michigan coach Tim Lester looked rested and comfortable, taking a seat and talking about the upcoming season during Mid-American Conference media day Tuesday at Ford Field.
After all, Lester knows he will have a more-healthy team to work with after losing 21 players to season-ending injuries last season — costing the Broncos (6-6, 4-4) a bowl bid after they won the MAC championship and earned a Cotton Bowl spot the previous year in P.J. Fleck’s final year as head coach.
WMU was sitting 5-3, including 3-1 in the MAC when quarterback Jon Wassink went down with a broken collarbone.
Wassink had thrown for 1,391 yards and 14 touchdowns, leading the MAC in completion percentage (.642) at the time of his injury. He had a TD reception and a rushing TD in the Broncos’ season opener, a 49-31 loss at Southern Cal.
“I had never been on a team that had been much past nine (season-ending injury), and when we got to 13 or 14, it was like what are we going to do?” Lester said. “We just lost starter after starter and were still in games so it’s exciting to know we’re healthy again.
“Jon looks great and (Davon) Tucker’s back, (Levante) Bellamy’s back and (Jamauri) Bogan’s back so we have the three-headed monster (at running back). It’s just exciting to have them back. They were all surgery-hurt so they all missed spring ball. Bellamy ran a 4.32 the other day, Tuck ran a 4.5 so they are all back and feeling good. They’ve kind of all licked their wounds and they’re motivated.”
Lester said it was WMU’s 14th season-ending injury when Wassink suffered the broken collarbone during a Week No. 8 overtime win at Eastern Michigan.
Lester added that the Broncos were down to two running backs — Jarvion Franklin and Matt Falcon — heading into a Week No. 11 game at Northern Illinois, when Falcon twisted his knee in warm-ups. Franklin rushed for 100 yards in the opening quarter and Western held a fourth-quarter lead before a 35-31 loss, followed by a 37-10 loss at Toledo to end its hopes for a bowl game.
Wassink is healthy and ready to show what he is capable of doing during a full season while former 1,000-yard rusher Jamauri Bogan (broken foot), Levante Bellamy (ankle) and Davon Tucker (foot) are also healthy and ready to go, playing behind a line led by Outland Trophy Watch list linemen in center John Keenoy and guard Luke Juriga.
Wassink gained a lot of confidence during his first year as WMU’s starter and plans to use that experience this season while the calls come in from Lester for the first time.
“We had a lot of injuries last year so a lot of guys are hungry to get back on the field and prove what they can do so we’re excited about this year,” Wassink said. “I still learned when I was out. Our offensive coordinator wanted me to come up in the booth for a couple of games. He wanted me to know how he thinks as a play caller so that was very helpful because as a quarterback you want to anticipate what your coaches are thinking.
“It’s also been great to have Coach Lester be a big part of what the quarterbacks are doing. He’s calling plays and he’s in our quarterback group a lot. He was obviously a great college quarterback.”
Lester feels right at home calling the plays again.
“Instead of coaching the coaches I’m now coaching the players again and that’s why I’ve gotten in this business,” Lester said. “It was miserable not being hands on with the players. I’m back doing what I love to do.
“I have a lot of confidence in Jon. Now that I’ve taken over, I’ve given him a lot of freedom and he’s relishing it. He’s smart and when you have smart quarterbacks you teach them football and let them play. If you don’t like my play, change it. When you get to that point you have a chance to have that (great) season and Jon relished in that in spring, changing plays and adjusting this and adjusting that.”
Lester said he is thrilled to have former Michigan receiver Drake Harris on board.
Harris set an MHSAA record for receiving yards in a season (2,015, 2012) when he grabbed 91 passes his junior year to help Grand Rapids Christian win the Division 3 state championship, but he missed his senior season due to an injury and was hampered by injuries at Michigan.
“There’s no joke that we were young at receiver last year, didn’t have a guy who had caught a pass (from the 2016 team),” Lester said. “It’s something we really had to focus on and he (Harris) was a graduate, got his release. Jon knows him because they played against each other in high school, and he’s a senior. He knows our quarterback and wants to come in and catch passes and he’s going to catch some balls so it’s worked out really well.”
“Drake has looked really good,” Wassink said of the 6-foot-4 Harris. “He’s very tall and lengthy, a great deep threat so we’re excited to see what he does in camp.”
The Broncos will host Syracuse in the season opener on Aug. 31 before a Sept. 8 road game at Michigan.