Of all of the units on the Western Michigan football team, the secondary has arguably the most talent, with at least three players running a 4.4 forty yard dash or below. This ability was not always on display last year, as Bronco fans were sometimes frustrated by the ups and downs of the 2011 season.
One aspect of this position that is undeniable is the speed of the players, something that junior safety Demetrius Pettway alluded to after the Brown and Gold game. Pettway said that no secondary in the MAC could compare, and fans would have to look to the SEC to find a team with such speed. WMU's third year secondary coach, Amp Campbell, didn't go that far, but he is nonetheless impressed.
"I haven't had a secondary so far in my coaching career that had guys that can run the way we can run back there right now," Campbell said. "I feel like the expectation level is pretty big for us right now. It's going to be a veteran group."
Coming into the spring, BroncoBlitz previewed the secondary, and a surprising amount has changed since the beginning of practice. Playing time battles have broken out at two positions that were unexpected, with a third that started at the end of last season and is no more shaken out now.
A position that is nailed down, however, is Western Michigan's rover spot in the 4-2-5 defense, where Johnnie Simon will roam the field as a redshirt junior in 2012. Simon has become a vocal leader as one of the veterans on the defense this spring, and is one of the surest tacklers on the squad. Campbell puts a lot of trust in the 6'0, 180 pound Floridian.
"It shows, when he had one tackle Saturday around the 15 or 20 yard line, he rolled his hips and scooped the running back up off his feet. You can count on him not missing a lot of tackles," Campbell said.
The safety spots are not as concrete. At free safety, sophomores Rontavious Atkins and Justin Currie fought for time throughout 2011 and were on equal footing coming into the spring, and neither has pulled ahead now that practice has come to a close.
Atkins is a bigger hitter than Currie and has solid cover skills, but Campbell indicated that Currie's 4.4 speed and change of direction ability allow him to cover more ground deep in the field. When asked if either player had pulled ahead with their spring performance, Campbell was hesitant.
"It's a big battle," he said. "Those guys showed a lot last Saturday in the spring game as they both compete for the starting spot. As you saw, one played with the first unit in the first half and another played with them in the second half."
The same is true of the strong safety spot, where junior incumbent Demetrius Pettway had interceptions for both the Brown and Gold teams in the spring game. This included a 77 yard pick-six in which his sub-4.4 speed was on display, but he is getting a surprising push right now from sophomore Jon Henry, who is beginning to put his game together after spending most of his time on special teams thus far.
Henry is possibly the fastest man on the Broncos, having been a two-time Michigan state track champion in the 100 meters at East Kentwood High School. He also ran a 4.32 in the forty yard dash, but was fairly raw in his cover skills, which are now coming along. Campbell indicated that the different styles of the two players may mean that splitting time this fall is the best option.
"Demetrius is a guy that's going to go hard every single play. He'll stick his nose in there regardless of how big you are, step down into the box," Campbell said. "John will beat you with his speed. He'll maneuver around guys, and give you that 4.3 speed that you're looking for that can change the game, and cover guys in the slot."
Campbell presented the cornerback position as a three-way battle, though veteran junior Lewis Toler is likely to see the most time in 2012. Toler has ideal size and speed at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, but had a slightly disappointing year in 2011 after a spring and summer that Campbell described as "not up to par." This was a point of emphasis for the staff this time around.
"I think this year, we harped on that more to get where we needed to for him to be an all-conference player. Pride-wise, I think Lewis knows, he's going to be willing to do every little thing he needs to do," Campbell said.
Sophomore Floridians Donald Celiscar and Garrett Smith will also see time at the second and third corner slots, though not necessarily in that order. Celiscar had won the number two job by late in 2011, but Campbell said that Smith had his best spring yet and it was essentially a coin-flip between the two at this stage.
One of the players to watch this spring was previously unknown redshirt freshman Ronald Zamort, a speedy, 5-foot-10, 170 pounder out of Delray Beach (Fla.) Atlantic High School. Zamort continued to impress the coaches this spring with his hard-nosed play, as he laid multiple big hits in scrimmages despite his underwhelming stature.
"He's going to play for us," Campbell said. "He's got quick feet, great change of direction. He's small, but he's like a chihuahua, he's scrappy. He'll hit you."
A common problem pointed out by fans was the Broncos' struggles last season with the read option and jet sweep, two plays that Northern Illinois in particular burned Western Michigan on in a 51-22 rout last fall. This was a point of emphasis for the team in the spring, and coach Campbell and the secondary were no exception. Campbell acknowledged the issue, but said that the defense started handling those plays better in later practices and he believes it will be better in 2012.
"The biggest thing for us in the back end is being able to get off blocks on the perimeter. With the read option, zone reads, and speed sweeps, this spring has had a big emphasis on those types of plays," Campbell said. "We've done a pretty good job of drilling that. It's going to be interesting to see how we respond to that this year, but when the time comes, we should have answers for it."