Saturday’s USC vs. Western Michigan game at the Coliseum will kickoff the 2017 season, and be a huge test for a Broncos offense having to replace some stars.
Western Michigan couldn’t have won their first 13 games, the MAC, and clinched the Group of Five berth to the Cotton Bowl without their star-studded offense in 2016. Led by receiver Corey Davis, the Broncos averaged an impressive 41.6 points per game and were the nation’s fourth-ranked team in offensive success rate.
But with the greatest year in school history comes the natural burden of dealing with attrition.
Davis, an All-American and finalist for the Bilnetnikoff Award, was picked fifth overall in the NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. He was joined on the graduation stage by quarterback Zach Terrell and second-round right tackle Taylor Moton.
Then, head coach P.J. Fleck rowed his boat to Minnesota in the offseason, with four WMU assistants on board, including offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and two offensive assistants.
So, if you’re planning on watching last year’s MAC Championship Game on YouTube to study up on the Broncos, you won’t get the full preview of the 2017 offense.
WMU turns to a two-headed coordinator situation on offense under new head coach Tim Lester, led by longtime Lester associate Jake Moreland and former Indiana offensive coordinator Kevin Johns.
If a connection to the Hoosiers seems familiar, it should. Their scheme in recent years has been eerily similar to that of USC’s.
And not only was Johns working alongside current Trojan running backs coach Deland McCullough, but Penn State used their game film against IU last year as a proxy to prepare against USC in the Rose Bowl.
RELATED PODCAST: Reign of Troy Radio’s USC vs. Western Michigan Preview Episode
Just like the Trojans, Indiana —and now Western Michigan— deploy a three-receiver shotgun base, often with a single back and tight end.
“[USC does] not throw the ball down the field as much,” PSU defensive coordinator Brent Pry said last December. “Indiana was chucking it all day long and having great success that somebody was catching it —either them or the other team. I think to me, SC’s a little bit more of a controlled, passing attack.”
It creates the rarest of situations, where the Trojans can prepare for a Week 1 opponent with a brand new head coach and not have to find a way to transpose a foreign system on current players to help conjure up a defensive plan.
Those WMU players though? They’ll require USC’s full attention, especially in the run game.
Loaded stable of Bronco backs
Western Michigan boasted the eighth-best rushing success rate in the country last year, at 51.6 percent. They did it behind an offensive line that also ranked eighth in opponent-adjusted line yards.
Fortunately for the Broncos, they return all three of their running backs —Jarvion Franklin, Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy— and three offensive linemen, including All-MAC left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor.
Franklin and Bogan (pictured) combined for 2,276 yards last season, with the former as the bruising power runner and the latter serving as an elusive back with a low center of gravity. Bellamy, limited to three games in 2016, is all speed.
“They’ve got a tremendous running game,” USC head coach Clay Helton said Tuesday. “We all know the two with Bogan and Franklin, but then to have Bellamy back also, coming off an ACL, and what he can bring to the table. They’ve really got a three-headed monster working right now.”
Of the three, Franklin is the back that jumps off the page as the most all-around threat. WMU’s career leader in rushing touchdowns enters his senior year with a wealth of experience starting with his dominant 1,551-yard freshman campaign in 2014.
At 6-feet, 225 pounds, Franklin is still nimble despite being a between-the-tackles runner and capable blocker, boasting 56 career receptions to his name because of it. His versatility opens up the playbook considerably.
Having all three backs at their disposal could be lethal for Western Michigan, especially with the losses at receiver and quarterback. Given the Week 1 aspect to Saturday’s game, mixing and matching is inevitable.
A completely new WMU passing attack
Replacing heaps of production in the passing game won’t be easy. And if you thought USC had it tough following the departures of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, then think again.
The Broncos’ lost their three starting receivers and a staggering 80 percent of all passing targets from last season. Half of that share belonged to Corey Davis.
In their place is a starting trio of not-too-experienced youngsters. Sophomore flanker D’Wayne Eskridge showed flashes as a freshman with 17 receptions, but his returning production accounts for all but two career receptions on the wide receiver depth chart.
Then there’s the inexperience of the guy throwing the ball, redshirt-sophomore Jon Wassink, who has yet to take a snap in a collegiate game.
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A three-star 2015 signee out of Grand Rapids, Wassink sports a deceptive pro-style label with overall athleticism that could be seen an upgrade from the 249-rushing-yard Zach Terrell in 2016.
“He can really run and he’s got a tremendous arm,” WMU broadcaster Robin Hook told Reign of Troy Radio this week. “He can throw it a long way and it really looks nice coming out of his hand. The only thing he lacks is the experience.”
While Hook compares Wassink’s demeanor to his predessor Terrell, head coach Tim Lester told local news earlier this month that he likens his style to the Washington Redskins’ Kirk Cousins.
The only question USC is interested in is what it means for Saturday. Expecting Wassink’s poise and command of the offense to be like on par with Terrell or Cousins isn’t exactly realistic. But that’s what his supporting cast is for.
“That run game can really take the pressure a young quarterback who is making his first start,” Helton said.
Given that WMU ranked 89th nationally in total pass attempts last year —over 14 games no less— a run-heavy approach is likely in Week 1.
How does Pendergast stop them?
Unlike last year, when the Trojans entered the season opener against Alabama without knowing who would be lining up under center, Western Michigan’s QB situation is clear.
Given how woefully unprepared USC looked once Nick Saban rolled the dice on dual-threat true freshman Jalen Hurts, it’s a nice change to know what they’ll be facing. Especially when defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s game plans include formational adjustments for each opponent.
The nickel essentially became USC’s base, with personnel choices allowing the defense to flex.
Despite being known for his 5-2 system, the Trojans relied on Pendergast’s newly formed 2-4-5 nickel defense in 2016. Although, they were not wholly invested until after the Alabama game in Week 1.
The change in formation routinely omitted not-really-starting defensive end Malik Dorton in favor of a fifth defensive back. In a conference full of diverse and complex offenses, the nickel essentially became USC’s base, with personnel choices allowing the defense to flex.
Against run-first offenses like Stanford and Oregon, Leon McQuay started as somewhat of a third safety. It was Ajene Harris and Jonathan Lockett who got the call as extra cornerbacks when facing passing attacks like Washington and UCLA.
This year, Harris and redshirt-sophomore Ykili Ross share the nickelback position on the depth chart. Ross is aiming to become this year’s version of McQuay, as a rejuvenated player in a new position.
Look for both to see the field plenty on Saturday against Western Michigan, with Pendergast already knowing to prepare for not only an offense that is as structurally dynamic as the Trojans’ own attack, but one which should be staunchly run-first in Wassink’s first start.
If USC can control keep the Bronco rushing game in check, it would put a wealth of pressure on the unproven parts of Western Michigan’s game.
Projected WMU Offense
WR Anton Curtis #2
WR Keishawn Watson #13
LT Chukwuma Okorafor #77
LG Curtis Doyle #67
C John Keenoy #52
RG Luke Juriga #59
RT Zach Novoselsky $75
TE Donnie Ernsberger #85
WR D’Wayne Eskridge #7
QB Jon Wassink #16
RB Jarvion Franklin 31