Kalamazoo – LeVante Bellamy is one of the fastest running backs in the country. He was timed at 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash this summer while preparing for his senior year at Western Michigan.
Bellamy hopes to use that speed to help the Broncos win the West Division title for a chance to win their first Mid-American Conference championship since their unbeaten regular season in 2016.
“It’s the last ride and we’re just hoping for a big one,” Bellamy said. “It’s very emotional. I’ve been trying to teach the young guys a lot. I feel like I want to leave a legacy. I want to leave a foundation for the young guys.”
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Bellamy showed his durability last season when he played in all 13 games, rushing for 1,228 yards after having his seasons in 2016 and 2017 cut short by injuries.
Bellamy had five 100-plus yard rushing games last season, including a career-high 213 yards and 35 carries in a 42-41 upset loss at Ball State on Nov. 13, which proved to be the difference of the Broncos (7-6, 5-3) coming a game short of the MAC West Division title.
Bellamy is proud of the fact he played in every game last season, getting 205 carries, compared to 146 during his previous 22 games when Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan got the bulk of the work.
“I feel like it was a statement – me being a durable running back,” said Bellamy of his 1,228-yard season, which made him a first-team All-MAC performer.
“I feel like a lot of fans had doubts, a lot of my teammates had doubts that I wasn’t going to be able to make it through a full season, that I wasn’t durable, that I couldn’t carry the load. But, I feel like last season I showed the speed, that I was versatile, and that I’m durable.”
Bellamy credits WMU strength coach Grant Geib with helping him get to a sub-4.3 40.
“He worked me hard during the offseason,” Bellamy said. “We did a lot of drills, speed work, ladder work. We did a lot of jumps, ran the hills, drive technique. So a lot of the credit has to go to the strength staff. It’s just great to be a part of this program.”
WMU returns the majority of its offensive line, including first-team All-MAC lineman Luke Juriga, along with quarterback Jon Wassink, who will try to show his durability this season after having his last two years cut short by injuries.
“We love Jon Wassink,” said Bellamy of Wassink, who threw for 1,994 yards and 16 TDs before his foot injury. “We were 6-2 when he got hurt, and we’re glad he’s back. He’s a leader, he’s a role model. He brings energy, brings spirit.”
The Broncos averaged 32 points last season, and WMU third-year coach Tim Lester plans to get the ball in Bellamy’s hands as much as possible. Bellamy also had 30 receptions last year.
“We’ve added some things for him to try and get him the ball in different ways and he loves that,” said Lester of Bellamy. “He understands the new stuff and he’s excited about the new wrinkles, and he’s done a great job of mentoring that room.
“We want to give him 15-to-20 carries, try to get it to him five to 10 times through the air. We found a couple of ways where we can handle the ball no matter what. We’re very strong at tight end, which allows us to get into some different sets. He understands how the passing game will allow him to have a little more space in the box.”
WMU Freshman All-American receiver Jayden Reed (56 receptions, 797 yards, eight TDs) transferred to Michigan State. But the impact of that was softened by the arrival of Keith Mixon from Mississippi State as a grad transfer.
WMU will also have 6-4 Jaylen Hall (Macomb Dakota), who has 4.32 speed, and Tyron Arnett, along with tight end Giovanni Ricci. D’Wayne Eskridge (38 receptions, 776 yards) is moving to cornerback.
“I don’t really think Reed leaving for Michigan State hit us as much as I thought it would,” Bellamy said. “We have a lot of guys who are able to play that role.”
Lester agrees: “The addition of Mixon is huge.”
Wassink also thinks Hall could take over Reed’s role as the No. 1 receiver.
“Jaylen can be that guy,” said Wassink. “He’s gotten stronger, which will be a key for him getting off the line against cornerbacks. What’s great about Jaylen is that he’s great at getting up and making plays. If you give him a ball on the top of his head he can go up and snatch it away, so that’s something that I’m looking forward to this year.”
WMU’s defense allowed an average of 34.5 points – 106th nationally – a reason Lester fired defensive coordinator Tim Daoust and promoted Lou Esposito.
“The one thing about Espo is, No. 1, the energy is there, but he’s a great teacher and the guys love him,” said Lester. “He’s going to be aggressive.
“Anton (Curtis, Detroit East English) is in his second year playing corner, and is way better, and now he has (Eskridge) out there. We brought in a transfer Kareem Ali from Temple, who is really good.”
Junior defensive end Ali Fayad (Dearborn) and junior tackle Ralph Holley (Orchard Lake St. Mary’s) will also be key contributors on defense.
Coach: Tim Lester, third year, 13-12 (9-7 MAC)
Outlook: The only thing that prevented the Broncos from playing in the MAC championship game was a Week 11 42-41 upset loss at Ball State. Senior Jon Wassink returns at quarterback after suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 9 after they were off to a 6-2 start. Other key players include first-team All-MAC running back LeVante Bellamy, first-team All-MAC offensive lineman Luke Juriga, defensive end Ali Fayad and 6-4 receiver Jaylen Hall.