Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan all will have new quarterbacks running their offenses this fall when the three Michigan teams try to contend for the Mid-American Conference championship and bowl bids.
WMU fourth-year head coach Tim Lester had the chance to see Kaleb Eleby in action when he was forced to play in five games as a true freshman in 2018, starting four following a season-ending injury to starter Jon Wassink.
Lester redshirted Eleby last season while Wassink finished his career with the Broncos, so Eleby would have the opportunity to be a three-year starter beginning with the 2020 season.
EMU seventh-year head coach Chris Creighton saw a small sample size of 6-foot-2, 205-pound Preston Hutchinson when he started in place of injured starter Mike Glass and had to be thrilled with what he witnessed in the Eagles’ 34-27 comeback win over WMU last fall.
And, Jim McElwain will have to replace starter Quinten Dormady, who helped the Chippewas win the MAC West title before falling to Miami (Ohio) in the conference championship game in McElwain’s first year at CMU.
Lester said the Broncos got the bulk of their spring practices in before the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to things. He was pleased with the work put in by the players after WMU’s late-season collapse of 2019 that included a Week 12 loss at Northern Illinois, denying the Broncos a MAC West title, and a First Responder Bowl loss to Western Kentucky.
Eleby came to Kalamazoo as one of the Broncos’ highest-rated players, ranking as a three-star dual-threat quarterback and the No. 9 player coming out of Missouri, turning down Power Five offers from Illinois and Iowa State to play for WMU.
When Wassink went down with a foot injury in a game against Toledo in late October of ‘18, Eleby came in and threw for 293 yards and two touchdowns in his collegiate debut.
“We wanted to redshirt him his first year, but we ended up going to a bowl game and had to have him play his fifth game, so he could no longer redshirt, so it was very important that we gave him that extra year back (by redshirting him),” Lesters said.
“I try to explain this, that there’s nothing that can replace experience, like going out there and making the mistake. He had three pretty darn good games as an 18-year-old (in 2018) and then two games where he really struggled and that will be huge for him moving forward, the good and the bad. I think having a whole year of watching Jon play last year, it helps you grow up and understand what we’re doing.
“He knows what we’re doing. He has a strong arm, flicks his wrist like it’s no big deal. There are just certain plays he has a good grasp on, a good feel for. It really showed when he was a freshman; young quarterbacks in general struggle throwing the ball over the middle. Linebackers are fast and big. When you’re a veteran you love throwing against linebackers, and when you’re young you like throwing to the sidelines. I watched Kaleb grow in throwing in the middle of the field and expanding his game from his freshman year to his redshirt year.”
Lester is thrilled to be able to surround Eleby with talented, experienced players, including several returning starters on the offensive line and multiple running backs, led by sophomore Sean Tyler, grad transfer Jaxson Kincaide (Nevada) and La’Darius Jefferson, who Lester hopes will be eligible after transferring from Michigan State.
It also helps that D’Wayne Eskridge returns as a wide receiver this season after playing in the secondary last season, so Skyy Moore (51 receptions, 802 yards) can move to the slot.
“Skyy did a lot of good things as a freshman, made all-conference, but we didn’t have a ton of great man-to-man beating guys other than Skyy, and Skyy will be back and D (Eskridge) is great in that scenario, and (DaShon) Bussell is good, so he’ll definitely have some weapons,” Lester said.
Meanwhile, Creighton has to replace Glass, who helped the Eagles earn a Quick Lane Bowl bid, a 34-30 loss to Pitt last December at Ford Field.
When Hutchinson was pressed into duty against WMU, he picked apart the Broncos’ defense, completing 31-of-36 passes for 357 yards and three TDs without an interception, also rushing for a score.
Hutchinson engineered a 72-yard drive when the Eagles were trailing 27-26 with 1:51 left. He hit on all five of his pass attempts, finally finding Matthew Sexton for a 34-yard TD with 36 seconds left to show his poise.
“It couldn’t have been a better game for him, no doubt, such a meaningful game, a high level of competition and he performed exceptionally well,” Creighton said. “The more experience anybody has is better; it just makes you better so that game was of enormous importance, but at the same time it was just one game. We’re definitely grateful at this point that he had that opportunity.
“He’s the guy to beat, but we also have Chris Helbig, a grad transfer from Southern Utah, he came in January, but he only had one practice, since we only had one day of spring ball.
“Preston’s strength is where he’s a winner, a great leader and the guys love him. I don’t think there’s one physical attribute that stands out. He’s good at all of it. His thing is just going to be consistently doing it and just getting better, better and better to be really good at everything, and he’s going to have two years to get great.”
Hutchinson will have multiple talented receivers to work with in juniors Dylan Drummond (55 receptions) and Quian Williams (52 receptions, six TDs), along with Hassan Beydoun (Dearborn), who had 11 receptions for 113 yards in the bowl game loss to Pitt.
CMU receiver Kalil Pimpleton (Muskegon), who was a first-team All-MAC performer last season, is looking forward to playing with redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson.
“He’s (Richardson) a very good leader, all about the team, always in the film room,” said Pimpleton, who led the MAC in receptions (82) and receiving yards (894). “He’s very organized on the field, gets players where they need to be to execute the play and he knows how to read coverages and makes the right reads. He’s all you can ask for in a quarterback and he can also make plays with his feet.”
Pimpleton had tremendous success in his first year at CMU while playing with Dormady and David Moore. Dormady started the majority of the games last season, but a knee injury in Week 2 opened the door for Moore who was 2-2 as a starter.
Moore was suspended by the NCAA last October for testing positive for a banned substance and more than likely won’t be available to play until this October.
Pimpleton said Richardson looked good during the 10 spring practices the Chippewas had before spring break. Like Pimpleton at 5-9, Richardson is a smaller quarterback at 5-11.
“He’s a bit on the shorter size for a quarterback, so when he takes his drop steps he makes sure he gets back deep enough so he can make plays with the receivers,” Pimpleton said of Richardson, who holds the Miami Dade County career passing records for yards (9,791) and touchdowns (116). “I expect to see a very poised quarterback out of Daniel Richardson.”