Lester eager to put Western offense to test

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — Tim Lester is thrilled with the situation he has inherited at Western Michigan.

And, for good reason since the Broncos are coming off of their best season in football, winning their first Mid-American Conference championship since 1988, going unbeaten (13-0) through the regular season before a loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

Lester, who was the starting quarterback on WMU’s MAC championship game team in 1999, was named head coach after P.J. Fleck departed after four years for Minnesota.

Lester will now oversee WMU’s Spring Scrimmage Saturday at 11 a.m. at Waldo Stadium, completing spring ball. The Broncos will open the season Sept. 2 at USC before playing Michigan State at Spartan Stadium Sept. 9.

“We’re calling it a Spring Scrimmage because we’re not at a point where we can go out there and act like we’re going to run a game and split up teams,” said Lester. “We’re going to go out and do the same thing we did last Saturday which is about a 40 or 50 play scrimmage, different situational stuff, keep the ones with the ones. We need them to work together as much as humanly possible. We just want to grow the players, the ones that don’t have the experience.”

And, Lester will keep a close eye on the quarterback situation. Zach Terrell was WMU’s starting quarterback the last four years, throwing for 12,100 yards and 96 TDs while leading the Broncos to three straight bowl appearances.

“I just want our offense to move fast, just look smooth and really just play hard,” said WMU junior quarterback Tom Flacco, the younger brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. “I’m working on being decisive out there, seeing what I see, trusting in what I see and hitting it.

“We have great running backs and our offensive line is doing a great job, just have two open spots from last year, left guard and right tackle, but our guys have stepped in and stepped up.”

Flacco will be competing for the starting job with redshirt sophomore Jon Wassink.

“They have equal reps with the ones, we’re flipping them every day,” said Lester of his quarterbacks. “There’s just so much more to come and both of them are doing great jobs. Jon’s strength is he has a great whip in his arm. He doesn’t have any game experience so the game’s a little fast for him, but as he gets more reps the game will slow down. Tom just needs to be a little more consistent throwing the ball, but man he’s calm and he moves his feet really well in the running game and he can make plays happen when plays break down.”

No doubt, the Broncos will be able to pound the ball while Flacco and Wassink feel comfortable running the show.

After all, the Broncos showcase two-time 1,000-yard runner in senior Jarvion Franklin who rushed for 1,300 yards last season, and junior Jamauri Bogan who rushed for 865 yards last season after a 1,051-yard, 16-TD freshman year.

“The reason that I feel great about it is the five guys up front, the tight end and the running backs,” Lester said. “We have some really good players there and they are playing hard and we can run the ball and when you can run the ball playing quarterback, I don’t want to say is easy, but it’s easy. What it does is it actually opens up receivers because you have guys with their eyes in the backfield and you’re running it and you’re running it.

“Depending on how we develop, we could just be a team that runs in play action so we don’t have to drop back a ton and we won’t be in third and longs with our O-line and tight ends and running backs and we’re running it on first and second downs. We’re still learning a lot about what we’re good at and what we’re not good at, which run schemes our linemen are really good at and which ones they struggle with. The one thing we knew is that we were going into the summer trying to get as much on tape as possible so that we can narrow it down and continue to simplify.”

Oh, and don’t forget former Michigan commit, red-shirt freshman Matt Falcon, a four-star recruit who was ranked as the No. 12 running back in the country by Rivals. Falcon suffered a knee injury the week before his senior year at Southfield in 2015 and missed all of last season.

“He’s going to be a great player,” said Lester of Falcon. “He’s been out there, but we have a red shirt on him. He doesn’t want a red shirt which means don’t touch him like what our quarterbacks wear. He gives me crap every time I see him because of that red shirt. He wants to play in Spring Scrimmage, but he’s not.

“He’s running great. We’re just going to be extremely cautious with him because we want to get him into the fall so we can let him go. I keep telling him it’s a necessary evil that we are bringing him back at a snail’s pace. He doesn't like it, but he understands."

Red-shirt running back Levante Bellamy is also recovering well from knee surgery and should be ready for the season.

Lester will be keeping a close eye on the receivers in Saturday’s Spring Scrimmage with the Broncos losing All-American Corey Davis, Carrington Thompson and Michael Henry.

The Broncos do return sophomore D’Wayne Eskridge (17 receptions) and senior tight end Donnie Ernsberger.

“That is by far the group that has the most upside as far as from where they started in spring until now, the receivers have gotten better and better,” Lester said. “I’m happy with all the guys who have not played a lot of football. This is huge for them.

“We don’t have a junior or senior in that room (of receivers). Anton Curtis is more of an inside, get open and understand how to find holes guy. We’ve actually put Eskridge outside because he can flat out go. We’ve moved D (Eskridge) outside some and let him be the guy. He catches it well and he’s so fast that he normally has got plenty of space that he doesn’t have to worry about contesting because he’s five yards past them. Rodney Graves is another guy who has the ability to be special. He’s just young and learning every day. I love the group. They are just young.”

The Broncos return the majority of the starters from a defense that forced 26 turnovers, giving them a plus-18 in the turnover margin.

And, the receivers will continue to develop going up against the MAC’s top secondary, led by senior Darius Phillips and junior Justin Tranquill “It’s a tough environment for the wide outs to go up against guys who have played a ton of football, but if you can get open on them, you can get open,” Lester said.

And, on Phillips.

“He’s always relied on his speed, he’s athletic as heck so he would just go up there and play,” said Lester of Phillips. “He didn’t worry about leverage. He didn’t worry about his feet. He didn’t worry about his punch so that's something he's working on because we won’t be off as much as they used to be. We’re going to be right up in the face and bring pressure. It’s very similar to the old defense, just a little more aggressive. The kids enjoy it. They enjoy blitzing.

“The D-line is kind of like our receivers, they’re young. (Defensive end Andre) Turner’s in there, you watch him and say, ‘that’s a great player.' Everyone is just getting better, (defensive end) Eric Assou is looking great. The linebackers have played a ton of football, the safeties have played a ton of football and the cornerbacks have played a ton of football which is huge.”

Fans attending the Spring Scrimmage should also keep an eye on 6-1, 220-pound sophomore Drake Spears who is in line to replace Robert Spillane who left the program after being a standout playmaker last season, forcing a fumble in the season-opening win at Illinois, then getting an interception in the final minute of the MAC championship game win over Ohio.