In 2011, Western Michigan's defensive line got preseason hype as one of the best of head coach Bill Cubit's time at WMU, and with the nickname "Team Trainwreck" was expected to be a nuisance in the backfield all year. The unit produced the MAC Defensive Player of the Year in Drew Nowak, and had an impressive 49 tackles for loss as a whole, but was criticized for struggling against physical running games and sometimes failing to bring down quarterbacks.
Now, Nowak is gone, with big shoes to fill. Nowak himself believes that the man to replace him is Travonte Boles, a 6-foot, 300 pound junior tackle from Vero Beach, Fla.
"I think Travonte really is going to step up this year," Nowak said. "He was playing with some injuries last year and didn't have the best season, but he's putting in a lot of hard work and getting better."
Coach Cubit feels Boles will be pushed in spring camp, and while the experience will be a boon for Boles, Cubit speaks very highly of 6-foot-3, 300 pound Demetris Anderson of Fort Pierce, Fla.
"I think Demetris has a chance to be a real good player. He runs real well for a big guy," Cubit said.
Someone to certainly watch for in the spring will be true freshman early enrollee Junior Estelus. Estelus is 6-foot and 270 pounds from West Palm Beach, Fla., and will get a chance to earn playing time as a freshman. As an early enrollee, the spring will be key for him trying to work his way into the rotation.
Those are the only three true defensive tackles that will be active in the spring, so Coach Cubit says that while he does not like to play tackles as true freshman, at least one of Jonathan Harden or Jabari Bothwell will most likely see time. Both will join the Broncos in the fall.
Moving out to defensive end, veteran Freddie Bishop is the leader on the outside. Bishop has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but the 6-foot-4, 253 pound Inkster, Mich. product has all the tools. His twelve tackles for loss last season were second on the line only to Nowak.
The other starting defensive end is still likely to be lanky Paul Hazel, and even though Hazel will line up at the linebacker spot some starting in the spring, he'll still get a chance to speed rush from the end spot. Hazel stands at 6-foot-5 and just over 210 pounds, and while he excelled at providing pressure on the quarterback last year, he often struggled to actually bring him down, finishing with only 2.5 sacks on the season. Nowak feels that this year will be different.
"I think, being it's Paul Hazel's senior year, I think it'll be a big breakout year for him. I think he's going to step up and make a lot of plays, and [the coaches] are going to put him in a spot to do that," Nowak said.
Deauntay Legrier is a veteran, having played in 30 games in his career. With his weight up to 249 pounds, he's best suited now for the defensive end spot, but he has retained a lot of quickness and will likely continue to bounce between the three point stance and the linebacker spot. With as many bodies as the Broncos now have at the positions, Legrier will have to work hard in the spring to avoid being squeezed out of some playing time as a senior.
Grand Rapids' Cory Sueing has provided quality depth to the WMU defensive line for two seasons and may be ready to take a step forward this year, but it remains to be seen how much the 6-foot-4, 245 pound end will play in the spring.
"He had a fracture in his leg, so he has a pin in there," Cubit said. "I'm not quite sure how much we'll get out of him in the spring."
Cubit also expects Cleveland Smith of Miami to get into the rotation, speaking highly of the redshirt freshman's enthusiasm for the game. Smith should round out the rotation, with Manny Diaz, another Floridian, and Jarrell McKinney, who will play both end and linebacker, providing injury depth and breathers if need be.
The unit will have to work hard all offseason to overcome the issues that plagued it all year long. This was a team that got into the backfield with decent regularity, but was absolutely pushed around by certain teams. The size is being upgraded, and this may be part of the reason that certain players are being moved to linebacker part-time. The Broncos must improve the physical aspect of their game on defense to have a legitimate shot at the MAC championship.