MAC notebook: Western, Central, Eastern Michigan ready for season openers

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Western Michigan coach Tim Lester can’t wait to run on the field at the Big House just before noon Saturday to see more than 100,000 fans when the Broncos open the season against the Wolverines, something that wasn’t the case during their six-game shortened pandemic season of a year ago.

“It’s been a long time coming, I know everybody on every team is excited to see some fans in the stands instead of created-sound noise like we had last year,” Lester said. “It’s been a great camp, and everyone knows and kind of gets the feeling that it’s going to be more normal, and our guys are obviously excited for the challenge this weekend.”

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby returns to Western Michigan after ranking third in the FBS in passer rating (195.08) behind Heisman Trophy finalist Mac Jones and BYU’s Zach Wilson.

Lester (24-20, 18-12 Mid-American Conference) begins Year 5 at WMU, putting the Broncos in position to win the MAC West title the last two seasons, only to lose both times to prevent them from playing in the MAC championship game at Ford Field, losing at Northern Illinois in 2019, then at Ball State last season, finishing 4-2.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby returns after ranking third in the FBS in passer rating (195.08) behind Heisman Trophy finalist Mac Jones and BYU’s Zach Wilson, both now in the NFL.

Eleby threw for 1,715 yards and 18 touchdowns with two interceptions, tied for most yards per attempt (11.2) in FBS with Jones while helping the Broncos average 41.7 points.

Eleby lost his primary weapon D’Wayne Eskridge to the NFL (second-round pick of the Seahawks), but returns two quality receivers in Skyy Moore (25 receptions, 388 yards, three TDs) and 6-foot-3, 185-pound junior Jaylen Hall (Macomb Dakota) who had 12 receptions and seven TDs last season.

The Broncos also have physical 6-1, 235-pound sophomore running back La’Darius Jefferson who rushed for 624 yards and five TDs last season (5.6 average) after transferring from Michigan State.

Lester knows Eleby & Co. will have a challenge going up against Michigan’s defense, led by defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, a potential All-American.

“They are an extremely talented team, big, fast and they have one of the best pass rushers in the country, projected to be a top-five pick so you have to know where he’s at at all times,” Lester said of Hutchinson. “They have a safety (Dax Hill) who in my opinion is one of the best I’ve seen, obviously they’re surrounded by a bunch of really good players, but those two I think are special, and so you have to keep an eye on those two and where they are on the field.

“Offensively, their quarterback (Cade McNamara) has experience. ... Offensively, we have some film on what they do, and we’re prepared to get out there and challenge them.

“Defensively, they have a new D-coordinator (Mike Macdonald) and a whole new defensive staff so there’s a lot of question marks on how they are going to line up and what they’re going to do, so offensively we’re going to have to keep our knees bent, be light on our toes and kind of roll out there and see what they do and make adjustments.”

McElwain looking forward to facing SEC foe

Central Michigan third-year head coach Jim McElwain is excited about having his Chippewas play an Southeastern Conference team, traveling to play the Missouri Tigers, who were 5-5 last season, on Saturday afternoon.

“I know we're really looking forward to the opportunity to go out and play and have some people in the stands, and obviously the opportunity to go play an SEC opponent and a great team and kind of see where we’re at,” said McElwain, who guided CMU to the MAC championship game in 2019, then a 3-3 record last season. “I’m really looking forward to it, our guys are looking forward to it and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for the program moving forward.”

McElwain plans to use multiple quarterbacks — returning starter Daniel Richardson and 6-5 sophomore Jacob Sirmon, a transfer from Washington — against a Missouri team which has a new defensive coordinator in Steve Wilks.

“I’ve been really happy with the progress in that room and those guys,” McElwain said of the quarterbacks. “There’s no doubt we’ll see multiple guys playing the position this week, and I’m looking forward to that.”

The Chippewas lost junior running back Kobe Lewis, who had knee surgery last week. Lewis rushed for 468 yards and six TDs during last year’s six-game season after his 1,000-yard (12 TDs) season in 2019.

With Lewis out, physical redshirt sophomore Lew Nichols (Detroit Cass Tech) will get more carries after averaging 6.5 yards a carry (508 yards rushing) last season to earn MAC Freshman of the Year honors. And, he will be going up against Missouri junior linebacker and former Cass Tech teammate Devin Nicholson, who had 10 tackles in a loss to Alabama, 13 tackles in a loss to Mississippi State and seven tackles, including a sack in a win over LSU last season.

Junior Darius Bracy also is expected to see action at running back for the Chippewas, along with freshmen Marion Lukes, Myles Bailey and DJ Stepney (Macomb Dakota).

“Our plans are to play quite a few guys to see where they’re at,” McElwain said of his running backs. “Lukes and Myles have been taking a lot of reps and doing a great job in practice, so we’ll play four or five guys at running back throughout the game.”

So, what does McElwain expect from Wilks who likes to run a zone defense? Wilks was head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 and was defensive coordinator for the Browns in 2019.

“They have a new coordinator on defense that obviously comes from the National Football League which really poses us one of those deals where we have to be really sound in what we’re doing,” McElwain said. “As soon as you think that you’re going to run into a lot of zone you’re going to end up getting a lot of man, that’s usually how these first things work. I’m sure they’ve gone in and evaluated their personnel.

“Guys that have been in it that long, they do a great job of adjusting to the players they have, and it will be interesting to see as the game moves on kind of what their identity is going to be based on the guys that they have in the program. For us, it’s going to be about protection and giving us the opportunity to get the ball in some playmakers hands.”

Playmakers like junior receiver Kalil Pimpleton (Muskegon), who was second-team All-MAC last season (26 receptions).

Eagles play host to FCS Saint Francis

Eastern Michigan will get the weekend started early when the Eagles play host to FCS Saint Francis (Pennsylvania) on Friday night at Rynearson Stadium.

EMU coach Chris Creighton knows Saint Francis will be ready to play after not having a season in 2020.

Saint Francis last played on Nov. 23, 2019, a 35-21 win over Delaware State to finish 6-6.

“It’s super exciting, we’ve worked hard for a long time for this,” Creighton said. “A couple of things that I shared with our team is that this is their first FBS game, so I know that they are going to be really, really excited about that. I know when I was the head coach at Drake, which is an FCS program, we always talked about wanting to play an FBS program and never were able to do that. Just like we get excited for Power Five games, there’s no difference.

“And, another thing we know is that they didn’t have a season so they’re going to be putting in two seasons into one in terms of just energy and intensity, and they play really good football. I coached in FCS for six years and I know the quality of that league and that program, so we’re totally locked in for that game on Friday.”

Creighton was 41-22 in his six years with Drake, a reason he was hired by Heather Lyke to take over EMU’s program in 2014. He is 30-51 (18-36 MAC) in his seven years with the Eagles, including a four-year run of 25-26 (15-17 MAC) prior to last season’s 2-4 shortened season.

“The last five years we’ve been playing pretty good football, but we have not played championship caliber football and that’s our next step and our guys know that and we want to play at that level badly and they’re working hard to do that,” Creighton said.

EMU will be led by 6-2 junior quarterback Preston Hutchinson, who threw for 1,657 yards and 12 TDs with six interceptions last season, including a combined 40-of-59 for 557 yards and five TDs without an interception in the final two games, wins over Western Michigan (53-42) and Northern Illinois (41-33).

david.goricki@detroitnews.com