WMU football draws from Power Fives Purdue, Alabama to help sustain momentum

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

In 2014, Western Michigan football went 8-4 in the regular season, then lost a bowl game. In 2015, the Broncos went 7-5, then won a bowl game — the first in program history.

Then, in 2016, WMU started the season 13-0, won a Mid-American Conference championship and played in a New Year's Six bowl, losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

It was a three-year momentum build — one current head coach Tim Lester hopes is happening again.

Western Michigan players and coaches mob head coach Tim Lester as the clock ticks down to zero in a victory in the Quick Lane Bowl over Nevada.

"That momentum helped them," Lester said. "It's definitely an advantage to have this momentum."

Lester isn't making any promises that his 2022 team will follow in the footsteps of 2016, which led to coach P.J. Fleck landing the job in Minnesota, and Lester replacing him in Kalamazoo.

But Lester isn't ruling it out, either, not after Western Michigan went to bowls and lost in 2018 and 2019 (the bowl slate was limited by COVID-19 in 2020), then went 8-4 in the 2021 regular season, before earning the program's second bowl win, 52-24 over Nevada in Detroit

The Broncos were a mighty force offensively, led by quarterback Kaleb Eleby and receiver Skyy Moore, but both players have declared for the NFL Draft. That's life in the college world, especially these days in the transfer-portal era. You're always adjusting, always filling voids.

The Broncos have the eighth-ranked recruiting class in the MAC for 2022, according to 247Sports, but Lester thinks more highly of it than the experts. On Wednesday, the second National Signing Day of the 2022 class cycle, Western Michigan signed six, including several Power Five transfers.

Among them is quarterback Stone Honnenbach, a transfer from Alabama, where he was a walk-on. He figures to be in a three-horse race during spring ball, when new offensive quarterback John Thorne — a national-championship coach at the Division III level, and the father of Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne (WMU and MSU play in the 2022 season opener) — gets his first look at what he has to work with. He'll inherit a young and talented crop of receivers, who headlined the 2021 recruiting class.

"The freshman class we recruited last year was the best we ever recruited," Lester said recently. "I really like our young receivers. I feel really confident about those guys."

Honnenback, who got on campus last month, is one of two quarterbacks officially signed by WMU on Wednesday, along with incoming freshman Treyson Bourguet of Tucson, Arizona.

The other headliners Wednesday came on the defensive side of the ball, including two transfers from Purdue — lineman Bryce Austin, from Southfield A&T, and back Anthony Romphf, from West Bloomfield. Four of the six signed Wednesday are transfers, including defensive lineman Warren Dabney from the Virginia Military Institute.

They'll help make up for the loss of senior defensive lineman Ali Fayad, a Dearborn native who was the 2021 MAC defensive player of the year and is off to the NFL.

One man who is staying put is Lester, 44, who just finished his fifth season and recently signed an extension that will take him through 2025. Each eight-win season moving forward will trigger an extra year on his deal. His salary will remain as it was when he took over for Fleck, with $800,000 in annual base pay, in the first significant move made by new athletic director Dan Bartholomae.

"We've been close, but sustained success is a very difficult thing to find," Lester said. "This is still not the end-all, be-all goal. That's what's still out there. That's what we're building toward."

Extra points

►Eastern Michigan signed a small, seven-player class during the early signing period in December, but made up for it with 16 additions Wednesday.

Among the notable signings is quarterback Taylor Powell, a transfer from Troy, where he split time as the starter in 2021 and threw for 1,251 yards and seven touchdowns to go with six interceptions. The Eagles also signed high-school quarterback Cam'Ron McCoy from St. Louis Missouri. Eastern Michigan has to find a new starting quarterback after 2021 starter Ben Bryant, who led the Eagles to a 7-6 season and a bowl game, transferred back to Cincinnati. The 2020 starter, Preston Hutchinson, transferred to Chattanooga. 

►Central Michigan, coming off a 9-4 season that included a 24-21 victory over Washington State in the Sun Bowl, kept it simple Wednesday after signing 14 in the early period. The Chippewas added a high school quarterback, Bert Emanuel Jr., from Missouri, Texas, and defensive end Oumar Conde, who is No. 8 on ESPN's list of the top prospects from New York for the class of 2022.

►Ferris State, the reigning Division II champion, signed a bulky 22-player class, with 17 from Michigan and the other five from a familiar pipeline, Florida. The headliner is quarterback Zak Ahern from Rockford. 

►Davenport, in Grand Rapids, signed a 53-player class for 2022, including 31 transfers.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984