The Wolverine

2021 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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128 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW BY CLAYTON SAYFIE Western Michigan went on a thrill ride last season, beginning the six-game season with four straight victories, including three by one touchdown or less. Head coach Tim Lester and Co. have plenty to work with in year five at the helm in Kalamazoo, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They are looking to build on some of the success the Broncos enjoyed a year ago. That all starts in the season opener at Michigan Sept. 4, when WMU will enter The Big House hoping to beat the Wolver- ines for the first time in program history. WMU returns eight starters from a unit that ranked ninth nationally in scoring of- fense (41.7 points per game), 16th in total offense (479.7 yards per game) and 23rd in passing offense (286.5). The Broncos scored 41 or more points in four of their six games. It's going to be tough to replace wide re- ceiver D'Wayne Eskridge, a second-round NFL Draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks this spring. He accumulated 784 yards and eight touchdowns last season. However, the man throwing him the ball, redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby, is back for more as are several weapons out wide. Eleby completed 64.7 percent of his passes last season, throwing for 1,715 yards (second in the Mid-American Conference) and 18 touchdowns (first). The team's top two pass catchers behind Eskridge are back — sophomore wideout Skyy Moore (25 catches for 388 yards and three touchdowns) and redshirt junior Jaylen Hall (12 catches for 323 yards and seven scores). The offensive line is set to be strong once again, after ranking 10th nationally in sacks (1.17) and 14th in tackles for loss allowed per game (4.33). Four starters return, including two who landed on Athlon's All-MAC teams in sixth-year senior left guard Mike Caliendo (first team) and sixth-year senior right tackle Mark Brooks (second team). The group also paved the way for a rush- ing attack — led by Michigan State transfer La'Darius Jefferson, a junior — that churned out 193.2 yards per game a year ago. Much like Michigan, WMU has a de- fensive unit that struggled last season, but it does boast experience and some corner- stones to build around. Eight of the Broncos' 2020 starters return, and 12 of the team's 13 leading tacklers from last year are back. While the defense as a whole was average last season — ranking 57th nationally in yards allowed per game — it was an active and dis- ruptive unit at the line of scrimmage, notching 8.5 tackles for loss per game, which ranked first in the MAC and fifth in the country. Key players up front include fifth-year se- nior defensive tackle Ralph Holley, a 2020 first-team All-MAC standout who made nine tackles for loss and three sacks, and fifth-year senior defensive end Ali Fayad, who registered six sacks and four tackles for loss last season. The Broncos lose top tackler Treshaun Hay- ward, a linebacker who transferred out of the program this offseason, but have an emerg- ing standout at the position in second-leading tackler A.J. Thomas, a fifth-year senior who converted from safety just before last season began. The clear leader in the middle of the defense, Thomas recorded nine stops behind the line of scrimmage and two sacks. The back end of the defense is looking to be more explosive, after totaling just two inter- ceptions and allowing 242.3 yards per contest through the air last season (78th in the country). Sixth-year senior safety Bricen Garner, a Pittsburgh transfer, is another building block. During his first season in Kalamazoo in 2020, he was third on the squad in tackles (45), while also adding 3.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading four passes broken up. Fellow Pittsburgh transfer Therran Coleman missed last season with an injury, but is pro- jected to start at cornerback. Notes According to, WMU is return- ing 58 percent of its total production from last season, a mark that ranks 103rd in the land … The Broncos' defense forced just three turnovers and posted a minus-three turnover margin last season. ❑ The Broncos Will Bring Offensive Firepower To The Big House 2021 SCHEDULE Date Opponent 2020 Result Sept. 4 at Michigan — Sept. 11 Illinois State — Sept. 18 at Pittsburgh — Sept. 25 San Jose State — Oct. 2 at Buffalo — Oct. 9 Ball State L, 30-27 Oct. 16 Kent State — Oct. 23 at Toledo W, 41-38 Nov. 3 Central Michigan W, 52-44 Nov. 9 Akron W, 58-13 Nov. 16 at Eastern Michigan L, 53-42 Nov. 23 at Northern Illinois W, 30-27 PLAYERS TO WATCH Offense: Kaleb Eleby, R-So., QB The third-team All-MAC pick in 2020 posted an impres- sive 18-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season … His completion percentage of 64.7 ranked 25th in the coun- try and his 285.8 yards racked up per tilt checked in 15th. Defense: Bricen Garner, 6th-Sr., S Pro Football Focus gave the 2020 first-team All-MAC standout a tackling grade of 72.1, which was second on the squad among players who saw more than 100 snaps. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jaylen Hall caught 12 passes in 2020, seven of which went for touchdowns. PHOTO BY ASHLEY HUSS/COURTESY WESTERN MICHIGAN ATHLETICS GAME 1 • WESTERN MICHIGAN BRONCOS • SEPT. 4 QUICK FACTS All-Time Series: Michigan leads 7-0 First Meeting: U-M 17, WMU 13 (Oct. 10, 1917 at Ann Arbor) Last Meeting: U-M 49, WMU 3 (Sept. 8, 2018 at Ann Arbor) Head Coach: Tim Lester, 24-19 at WMU (5th year) and 54-43 overall (10th year) 2020 In Review: 4-2 overall, 4-2 MAC (3rd West) Final 2020 Ranking: Unranked Returning Starters: 18 (8 offense, 8 defense, 2 specialists) Last Bowl Appearance: 2019 (SERVPRO First Re - sponder Bowl vs. Western Kentucky, L 23-20) Returning Leaders Passing: Kaleb Eleby (1,715 yards, 18 TD) Rushing: La'Darius Jefferson (624 yards, 5 TD) Receiving: Skyy Moore (388 yards, 3 TD) Tackles: A.J. Thomas (46) Sacks: Ali Fayad (4.0) Interceptions: Harrison Taylor, A.J. Thomas (1)

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