KALAMAZOO, MI — After losing its starting quarterback and virtually all pass catchers from the 2021 season, there is a lot of uncertainty about what Western Michigan’s offense will look like under first-year coordinator Jeff Thorne.
And with that uncertainty comes skepticism about how the Broncos will fare in head coach Tim Lester’s sixth season at the helm.
But that uncertainty also means an opportunity for the players to prove themselves, and that’s why Lester looks forward to heading to Waldo Stadium each morning for WMU’s Fall Camp, which kicked off Thursday.
“That’s one of the most fun things about college football and I love it so much,” Lester said. “I can’t get Tom Brady for 17 years. When we had (quarterback Jon) Wassink, no one knew who he was, and then no one knew who (former quarterback) Kaleb Eleby was, and they thought we stank because we didn’t have a quarterback.
“It’s fun to see new people slip into their roles.”
PHOTOS: Check out our gallery of WMU’s first practice of fall camp
Jack Salopek, last year’s backup behind Eleby, left spring ball with a slight advantage over dual-threat signal caller Mareyohn Hrabowski and Alabama transfer Stone Hollenbach, and the redshirt freshman from Pennsylvania took nearly all first-team replays Thursday and continued his trajectory for the starting job in week 1.
“He’s had a great spring, a great summer and I’ve told everyone the race just started today but he’s in pick position,” said Lester. “He did most of the reps with the 1s. The back shoulder he threw on the touchline was impressive. I thought he made good decisions, but we have to see the film.”
While Salopek’s arm strength is a notch below that of Eleby, who is currently vying for an NFL roster spot, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound quarterback showed enough momentum to hit a shot across the field on an out route, good placement on a seam stretch to tight end Austin Folge and a good touch on a back shoulder fade to Wisconsin transfer AJ Abbott sliding catch between defenders against a WMU zone.
Hrabowski had an up-and-down day, highlighted by a nice deep ball to Boston College transfer Jehlani Galloway, who reached down and tugged a pass off his laces in the end zone, but the redshirt freshman quarterback pulled off a few bad ones too reads including one that led to an easy interception for cornerback Keni-H Lovely.
Hollenbach did slightly better, but not enough to push Salopek off the top of the depth chart, at least after one practice.
True freshman Treyson Bourguet saw some third-string reps and made a few good reads that led to easy completions, but he wasn’t asked to do a ton in his first college practice.
“I thought Stone threw it pretty well; Mareyohn threw it pretty well,” Lester said. “The boys are swimming. They look like young guys right now, but they can both throw it.
“Stone really got going in the summer. He came here in the spring, he was from Alabama, and he didn’t really know what he was doing. In the summer he started to settle down and know what he’s doing, so I think he’s progressing a bit.
The consolidation of the quarterback spot would go a long way in helping WMU beat expectations in a season where the Broncos are expected to finish fourth in the MAC West by both Athlon Sports and league media members.
There are also questions along the offensive line, where the team will need to replace starting center Mike Caliendo and tackle Wesley French and Mark Brooks.
After starting all 13 guard games as a redshirt freshman in 2021, Jacob Gideon has established himself as the new center and earns a spot on the Rimington Trophy watchlist, while tackle positions have been solidified with two more position changes with senior Dylan Deatherage switches from guard to left tackle and Jack Sherwin switches from tight end to right tackle.
Sherwin, who signed with WMU in 2018 as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound defender from Traverse City Central, has gained as much as 295 pounds en route to fall camp and has been impressing coaches all spring and summer.
That leaves the two starting guard spots vacant, and Lester said the competition is wide open.
“I think we played[Trevor]Campbell and[Addison]West against them today,” he said. “These are the two veterans; You deserve the first try, but Adam VanderVest is ready to go. Matt Muetterties, coming from western Illinois, looked really good today. Calvin Muraski looked really good. (Carson) Briggs is coming back.
“We knew for years this was coming, so we recruited this. We’ve got about eight guys fighting for the last two spots and it’s going to be a hell of a fight but those will be wide open.”
Whoever wins the starting guard spots will be blocking for one of the best running back units in the MAC, led by the speedy Sean Tyler, the burly La’Darius Jefferson and the compact Zahir Abdus-Salaam, who got a lot of work on Thursday .
Defensively, WMU should also be among the best in the league defensively thanks to a trio of returning starters at Linebacker, two talented pass rushers in Marshawn Kneeland and Andre Carter, and a secondary bringing back DaShon Bussell and Bricen Garner, both of whom missed the most last season with injuries.
While WMU’s passing game won’t be as explosive as in previous years, strong groundplay and solid defense are necessary ingredients for a MAC championship, and Lester said he likes the depth of his team across the board.
“I think we have more depth, experience and talent on defense than we’ve ever had, which is exciting because it allows you to stay in the game,” Lester said. “Offensively we have a lot of new faces. The tight end spot, nobody knows it but we know it really well.
“We love our running game. I look forward to seeing the quarterback play and giving the new guy a chance. It’s going to be one of the deepest teams we’ve ever had, but when you don’t have a proven quarterback, there’s some skepticism, which is fine, but it’s the excitement.
“This is probably our closest team and I think this is the first team I’ve recruited every single player for this team.
“This is going to be a fun year to train and a fun team to train.”
WMU kicks off its 2022 season on Friday, September 2 with an away game against Michigan State.
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