Sophomores, More Sophomores And The Western Michigan Broncos

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Western Michigan confuses me. They've finished .500 or better in 15 of the last 23 seasons and are one of the more consistent winners in the conference, but they haven't been to a MAC title game in 10 years. They build up potential big, young coaching names (Gary Darnell, for instance), then break them down. It appears you can win in Kalamazoo, but you can't win too terribly much.

In 2010, the Broncos were no less confusing. They threw more than almost anybody in the country, but they threw to only two guys. They rushed the passer better than most major conference teams, but their pass defense was still quite poor. They won by margins of 15, 29, 34, 35, 35 and 36, and they lost by margins of 13, 20 (to Idaho!), 24 and 24. They played all of two games decided by a touchdown or less; that they lost them both defined their season. Instead of their third season of eight wins or more in the last five years, a WMU team that was perhaps better than the 9-4 squad of 2008 finished with an entirely forgettable 6-6 record.

WMU's F/+ ratings suggest they were an above-average MAC team, but they were never simply above average. They were either great or terrible. Youth can explain some of this -- the secondary was littered with freshmen, the quarterback was a sophomore, the best running back was a freshman who didn't debut until mid-season -- but ... all of it? We'll see. If youth was a major cause of WMU's downfall, then their ceiling could be awfully high in 2011.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-6 | Adj. Record: 6-6 | Final F/+ Rk**: 78
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Michigan State 14-38 L 15.1 - 36.7 L
11-Sep Nicholls State
49-14 W 26.9 - 29.6 L
18-Sep Toledo 24-37 L 22.1 - 21.8 W
2-Oct Idaho 13-33 L 10.9 - 28.0 L
9-Oct at Ball State 45-16 W 29.8 - 30.7 L
16-Oct at Notre Dame 20-44 L 27.9 - 35.9 L
23-Oct at Akron 56-10 W 36.7 - 24.1 W
30-Oct Northern Illinois 21-28 L 27.5 - 24.0 W
5-Nov at Central Michigan 22-26 L 25.3 - 29.0 L
13-Nov Eastern Michigan 45-30 W 41.8 - 35.2 W
20-Nov Kent State 38-3 W 50.3 - 25.5 W
26-Nov at Bowling Green 41-7 W 33.9 - 32.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 32.3 27 23.8 52
Adj. Points Per Game 29.0 46 29.4 75

One thing is certain: Western Michigan pulled off a picture perfect "young team" impersonation in 2010. They started slow and improved significantly as the season progressed.

Adj. PPG, First Four Games: Opponents 29.0, WMU 18.8 (-10.2)
Adj. PPG, Next Four Games: WMU 30.5, Opponents 28.7 (+6.8)
Adj. PPG, Last Four Games: WMU 37.8, Opponents 30.6 (+7.2)

Though the defense went through ups and downs, the offense went steadily up. As we'll see below, this was partially due to a freshman running back, but whatever the cause, WMU went from playing like a Bottom 20 team (which is where a minus-10.2 Adj. scoring margin would get you ranked) in September to playing like a Top 35 team in November. With 15 starters back, that is certainly something around which to build.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 80 82 73
RUSHING 81 82 81 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 79 85 70 85
Standard Downs 62 83 56 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 92 73 96 64
Redzone 70 60 77
Q1 Rk 87 1st Down Rk 51
Q2 Rk 75 2nd Down Rk 106
Q3 Rk 74 3rd Down Rk 76
Q4 Rk 39

During my profile of the run-happy Georgia Tech offense, I spent a good portion of time talking about the passing game. So now I turn the tables and talk about Western Michigan's run game. WMU's top four running backs combined for fewer than 20 carries per game, but a successful late surge on the ground showed how much better an offense can be when opponents have to account for everything. That late surge's name: Tevin Drake. The most highly-touted member of WMU's 2010 recruiting class, Drake was not cleared to practice by the NCAA clearinghouse until after the season had begun. It took him a little while to get up to speed, but by midseason, head coach Bill Cubit came to realize he couldn't keep Drake off the field.

His performance was stunning. When Drake received at least five carries, WMU was 5-0; in those games, Drake carried just 36 times for 397 yards. He threw in a 49-yard reception to boot. He led the Broncos (again, in just six games) with 405 rushing yards, and his +18.3 Adj. POE would have ranked him 12th in country if he had enough carries to qualify. He was an absolute revelation, and considering who he replaced (Brian Fields, Aaron Winchester and Dareyon Chance combined for -6.8 Adj. POE), the difference he made on the WMU offense starts to make sense.

WMU Offense When Drake Gets At Least Five Carries: 38.5 Adj. PPG
WMU Offense When He Doesn't: 22.2 Adj. PPG

In 2011, we will see what Drake is capable of when given a full load. He certainly won't average 10.1 yards per carry (oh, but if he did...), and WMU probably won't average 38.5 Adj. PPG (a top ten-caliber total) for an entire season. But there's really little reason to doubt he isn't already one of the best running backs in the MAC, and if WMU's run game improves beyond last year's iffy ranking of 81st, then the Broncos become quite dangerous. Even if WMU's run-pass ratios don't change, Drake could massacre opponents that focus too heavily on the pass.

If there is a concern in the run game (beyond what happens if Drake gets hurt), it is the offensive line. In guards Phillip Swanson and Nick Clemens and center Nick Mitchell, WMU must replace a combined 10 years of starting experience. And in terms of run blocking the line really wasn't that great with these three last year. There is hope up front, especially in guard Anthony Parker (25 career starts, all-conference in 2009, and not this guy) and huge tackle Dann O'Neill, a 6-foot-8 Michigan transfer who started ten games last year. But that is still a lot of experience to lose at once.

Other tidbits:

  • Bill Cubit has been doing the spread-'em-out-and-throw thing for a lot longer than it has been en vogue. He lit up the scoreboards as head coach of Widener University (alma mater of Billy "White Shoes" Johnson!) in the mid-1990s, ended up on Gary Darnell's WMU staff, got hired by a desperate Larry Smith at Missouri in 2000 (go figure: his version of the spread did not translate well to Smith's three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust personnel), then served as coordinator for Rutgers and Stanford before finally landing in a more stable situation. When Darnell's tenure in Kalamazoo ended, Cubit was pegged as the replacement.

    Cubit's offense is extremely quarterback friendly. They pass a disproportionate amount of time on standard downs and mix in some draws and rollouts on passing downs. The result: short passing success and high completion percentages. And to be sure, then-sophomore quarterback Alex Carder's stat line was pretty: 3,334 yards (7.3 per pass), 63% completion rate, 30 TD, 12 INT. Throw in 406 pre-sack rushing yards (+10.4 Adj. POE), and there really isn't much more you could want from a stat line. Carder must improve his play-making on passing downs, however. On standard downs, WMU was proficient, but when they needed to make a play to keep a drive going, they struggled.
  • The most unique part of WMU's offense in 2010: Carder threw a boatload of passes, and they mostly went to two players: Jordan White (1,378 yards, 14.7 per catch, 65% catch, 10 TD) and Juan Nunez (1,032 yards, 11.3 per catch, 62% catch, 10 TD). These two combined for 64% of WMU's 2010 targets, which was easily the highest percentage in the country for a duo. The next-highest duo: Greg Jones and Gee Gee Greene at 57% in Navy's never-throws-it offense. (Their combined targets: 79.) Either they were really good, or the rest of the receiving corps was really bad. We'll find out, I guess, as Nunez is gone. He was the more replaceable of the two, more the possession man to White's big-play threat. Look for either Chleb Ravenell (513 yards, 10.7 per catch, 67% catch in 2009; missed all of 2010 to injury) or Robert Arnheim (235 yards, 10.2 per catch, 62% catch rate, 1 TD) to get the first crack at No. 2 status.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 88 78 94
RUSHING 71 63 71 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 98 85 104 80
Standard Downs 96 73 105 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 78 102 70 15
Redzone 47 69 38
Q1 Rk 56 1st Down Rk 102
Q2 Rk 115 2nd Down Rk 54
Q3 Rk 96 3rd Down Rk 76
Q4 Rk 39

Let's play the Optimist vs Pessimist game for the first time in a while!

What an optimist sees from WMU's defense: Despite a depth chart littered with freshmen, the Broncos' defense improved in 2010, both from 2009 and from the start of the season to the end of the season. Their line stats were great, and all relevant linemen return. An incredibly young secondary survived a tough year and will only get better from here.

What a pessimist sees from WMU's defense: They had a great pass rush but still ranked just 98th in Passing S&P+, meaning their secondary was potentially one of the worst in the country. Now two of their three best tackles-for-loss guys are gone. Youth can only explain so much about a secondary that bad, and if the pass rush is going to be worst this year, how will the defensive backfield make up the difference?

What do we know for sure?

1) WMU's pass rush really was outstanding, ranking fourth among all mid-major defenses (only Boise State, Fresno State and SMU were better) and 15th overall. The three TFL leaders were linebacker Dex Jones (34.0 tackles, 12.5 TFL/sacks), end Paul Hazel (35.5 tackles, 12.0 TFL/sacks) and rover Jamail Barry (62.0 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 FF, 2 FR, 4 PBU); Jones and Barry have used up their eligibility.

2) WMU's secondary really was ridiculously young. Cornerback Lewis Toler (47.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 3 FR, 9 PBU) earned all-conference honors as a redshirt freshman, and two true freshmen -- Raheam Buxton (20.5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU in eight games) and Maurice Roberts (19.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks in seven games) -- both received extensive playing time. Only one upper-classman -- Damond Smith () -- played a role at the cornerback position, and he was replaceable. Throw in free safety Demetrius Pettway (23.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF), and you've got four then-freshmen playing major minutes in the secondary.

How much regression will we see in the pass rush, and how much improvement will we see in the secondary? Your answer probably depends on your disposition.

Other tidbits:

  • It does have to be encouraging that every lineman of consequence returns. They are led by Hazel and tackles Travonte Boles (21.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Drew Novak (27.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks). Hazel is, at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, the definition of a speed rush artist; his presence on the line somewhat explains why WMU was better in terms of Adj. Sack Rates than Adj. Line Yards. Boles, meanwhile, is extremely intriguing, partially because of his extreme squattiness (6-foot-0, 303 pounds ... the 6-foot-0 might be a reach, and the 300 pounds is 30 fewer than what he carried this time last year) and partially because he was yet another true freshman logging major playing time. Ends Deauntay Legrier (19.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) and Freddie Bishop (19.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks) give the Broncos five potential playmakers on the line.
  • Berry's and Jones' absences leave the linebacking corps a bit depleted, though Chris Prom (20.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and rover Johnnie Simon (17.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 3 PBU) showed hints of potential, and middle linebacker Mitch Zajac (60.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) is the requisite tackling machine most defenses need.

Western Michigan's 2010 Season Set to Music

"I Go To Extremes," by Billy Joel. Welcome to the team profiles, Billy.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Juan Nunez and Jordan White combined for 292 targets. Only seven trios combined for more than that (Hawaii, Oklahoma, SMU, East Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma State). Only 22 teams had groups of four receivers who combined for more than that. Almost half the country (57 teams) didn't reach 292 targets with their top six targets.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 85
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 90
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +3 / +3.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (6, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.5

As with Toledo, I seem to be talking myself into Western Michigan. This has been a kooky team in recent years, usually good (aside from the end of the Darnell era), but usually not too good. If the secondary is indeed improved, and if Tevin Drake's encore is as good as his debut, then perhaps only Toledo has a higher ceiling than the Broncos. But if the secondary isn't any better, and if the quality on the offensive line plummets, then things look a lot different.

One thing is certain: WMU has plenty of chances to prove itself this fall, mostly away from Kalamazoo. The non-conference season includes trips to Michigan, Illinois and UConn, three solid teams who could easily be vulnerable to an upset if the stars align. Upsets or no, however, the season could be defined the most by a Tuesday night trip to Toledo on November 8. If Northern Illinois takes a step backwards without Jerry Kill, then the Broncos-Rockets winner could be in the driver's seat in the MAC West.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this team, however, has little to do with 2011. If the projected starting lineups hold true as expected, then WMU will return another 14-16 starters next year. Carder is a junior, and the aforementioned load of sophomores will be around a while longer. There will be work to do in the receiving corps, but otherwise the table is set for a nice run for Cubit and company.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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