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From unexpected starter to stardom: Kaleb Eleby’s journey at Western Michigan

A look back at Eleby’s success through 3 games in his first year as Western Michigan’s full-time starter.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Western Michigan at Akron Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unexpected beginnings

October 25, 2018 — It’s a Thursday night in Kalamazoo. In year two of the Tim Lester era, Western Michigan has its sights set on returning to the mountaintop of the conference it ruled two years prior. The first year of Lester’s tenure ended in an unmitigated collapse due to a season-ending injury of starting quarterback Jon Wassink. But 2018 is a different year. Wassink is back to lead the Broncos are 6-2 record with an unblemished record in MAC play. Toledo pays a visit for a pivotal showdown between MAC West contenders.

Suddenly, disaster strikes again. On the first possession of the night, Wassink scrambles nine yards to the left sideline, but the play appears much more costly. Wassink sustained a right foot injury, one that would prematurely shorten his season for the second year in a row.

Enter Kaleb Eleby. At the time, he’s a 6’1” true freshman from the St. Louis area suburb of Maryland Heights, Missouri. Eleby’s time under center was supposed to come, but it wasn’t supposed to be this early. With five games left on the schedule, Lester’s plan to redshirt Eleby would soon foil.

Eleby trots onto the field and gets accustomed to the in-game atmosphere by handing it off several times. Three handoffs later, a passing play is finally called. Eleby’s first collegiate pass is a bubble screen to Jayden Reed and the future Michigan State receiver jukes two defenders out of their cleats and scores a 25-yard touchdown.

Eleby then completes his second pass, and his third, and eventually his fourth. The completions keep piling up until he sits at a perfect 8/8, 146 yards, and 2 touchdowns entering halftime. Although Western Michigan lost that game, Eleby (23/28, 293 yards, 2 touchdowns in the game) proved his efficiency and decision-making could lead the program to great heights in the future.

The Broncos finished 1-3 in Eleby’s four starts to close the season, but flashes of potential were mixed with critical learning moments, especially in Western Michigan’s 49-18 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl loss to BYU.

“You learn more in your first four to five games than any other time in your career,” Lester said. “He got to learn how fast the game is. He went against a really good defense in BYU and they got after him, getting hit, and the unique coverages he didn’t handle very well, and he had to swallow that pill.”

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Western Michigan v BYU
Eleby received valuable bowl game experience in the 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl vs. BYU
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Eleby returned to second on the depth chart behind Wassink as a true sophomore. In 2019, he didn’t take a single snap. Wassink finally finished a season undeterred by injury and Eleby took the redshirt that he was expected to utilize the year prior. Due to the NCAA’s redshirt rule which permits a maximum of four in-game appearances, Lester planned to play Eleby in 2019, but the close nature of Western Michigan’s final four contests prevented him from building on his true freshman experience.

“The way it worked out for him is actually better,” Lester said. “He got to take his lumps early on, he got a year to learn and watch Jon (Wassink) every game, and then he got handed the keys this year and he really has earned that, and he’s taken advantage of it.”

Eleby on the next level

Now, the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos are Eleby’s team.

Through three games in 2020, Eleby is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and his Broncos sit atop the MAC West with a 3-0 record. There are dozens of elite quarterbacks in college football this season — from Trevor Lawrence to Justin Fields to Mac Jones or Zach Wilson — but Eleby conquers all quarterbacks when it comes to passer rating. His 240.4 rating quietly ranks first in the entire country.

“It’s pretty good company,” Lester said on Eleby’s high statistical ranking. “After three games, when you focus on being efficient and you focus on executing, sometimes you get to halftime or get to the end of the game and you’re amazed, because you’re in it in the moment.”

Eleby averages over 309 passing yards per game at a 67.7 completion rate. His 14.3 yards per completion rank first in the FBS, over two yards greater than Mac Jones in second place. The redshirt sophomore has fired 11 touchdown passes and just one interception — a pick which bounced off his receivers’ hands in the first quarter against Central Michigan — and he is one of three quarterbacks overall with 11+ touchdowns and as few as one interception.

“He’s also starting to learn that when you’re efficient, big plays come,” Lester said. “Sometimes young guys are out there trying to make big plays. You have to go out there and learn how not to lose a game as a quarterback first. If you can be a quarterback that doesn’t lose a game for a team, then all your big plays are gonna come and you can be a stud.”

Yes, Western Michigan is dealing with a limited sample size, but Eleby has put on a clinic in the passing game through three outings. The competition has been formidable as well, considering two of his starts were against MAC West contenders in Toledo and Central Michigan.

A career-changing sequence

Eleby’s best work transpired in the same venue against the same team where it all started. On Nov. 11, Toledo led Western Michigan by 10 with under three minutes to go. With no timeouts handy, Eleby showed tremendous poise and guided the offense down the field, throw by throw. He overcame the obstacle of converting a 4th down which would have otherwise ended the game. Eventually, he drilled a 31-yard pass into the hands of his star wideout D’Wayne Eskridge to travel down to the 2-yard line. Then, he powered his way into the end zone on a quarterback sneak.

Western Michigan recovered the onside kick, and it was back to work for Eleby without much of a breather. He strung together three-straight completions and then went for the jugular. While rushing to the line of scrimmage, Eleby signaled for a spike at the Toledo 9-yard line with 20 seconds left. But the quarterback handled the snap and sold one of the best fake spikes in recent memory. He drew the entire Toledo defense off guard and rapidly floated the ball toward wide receiver Jaylen Hall in the end zone to complete the most improbable comeback of the 2020 season. Back against the wall, Eleby finished 11/13 for 116 yards and the game-winning touchdown on his final two possessions. He executed a career-defining moment which will forever stand in the annals of Bronco history.

Defining attributes

Eleby perfected some of the top plays in Western Michigan’s offense, and as a result, the unit is looking stellar as one of two programs to average 50 points per game this season. He has particularly nailed the RPO quick slant — a play the Broncos frequently turn to against backed off coverage — and Eleby’s impeccable timing on the throw often turns the play-call into six points.

“We made three or four unique tweaks to our offense this year that have been helping us a lot and he was right in with us in those meetings understanding what we’re looking at and what we’re trying to do,” Lester said. “A lot of times, young guys are just out there and they’re mutes. They don’t say anything. They really can’t regurgitate what they’re seeing. He’s out there, he’s seeing it, he’s coming up with ideas, and he’s really part of the process which I think shows how much studying he’s doing.”

Tim Lester knows quarterbacks. He was a talented one himself in the late 1990s, currently ranking third all-time in Western Michigan history in passing yards and passing touchdowns. He’s also coached plenty while serving as the quarterbacks coach of Western Michigan, Syracuse, and Purdue before taking over the reigns in Kalamazoo in 2017. Still, Eleby’s cannon arm is one attribute of the young quarterback which continues to impress Lester each day.

“My backup at Purdue, Elijah (Sindelar) had a rocket. He was humpin’ it on the mound at like 98. But him and Kaleb are definitely the two strongest armed quarterbacks I’ve ever coached,” Lester said. “They can make field throws and make them look easy. There’s three to four times a day where we decide to make a throw where the ball comes out of his hand and I say, ‘I wish I could make that throw.’ I threw for a lot of yards but I couldn’t make some of the ones he makes.”

Home run plays are typical when Eleby mans the pocket. He has delivered six touchdown passes of 40 yards or greater through three games, and he tore apart Central Michigan’s defense with four 30+ yard touchdown passes in his most recent performance — which featured 382 yards on 12 completions. When the arm strength combines with accuracy, Eleby’s talents become an especially dangerous mixture for opposing secondaries.

“Arm strength wise, he’s as good as I’ve ever had and it allows us to use the whole field, especially nowadays where defenses are picking and choosing what they’re gonna take away, they know the easy throws,” Lester said. “You can get better in your core, but that stuff you can’t really teach. We saw that when we recruited him and it’s been fun to watch as he continues to develop and get even more consistent with his accuracy.”

The work isn’t done yet, but it’s just getting started. Western Michigan’s schedule is still stocked with three more games before the Broncos can participate in their first MAC Championship Game since 2016. But if Eleby continues his rampage of stockpiling impressive throws and touchdowns on opponents, Western Michigan could reach the height it’s been aiming for since Lester arrived nearly four years ago. Then, Eleby can be recognized as one of the premier quarterbacks in college football.