There’s a football game being played at The Big House on Saturday, and we’re pretty excited about it here at Maize n Brew. To get some intel into the Western Michigan program we spoke to the voice of Broncos athletics, Robin Hook, who has been with the program since 1984.
We’re changing things up a bit this season with our getting to know the opponent articles — we will have a podcast recording (which is attached to this article), and we’ll also have the transcript in print form.
Here’s a look at the conversation Robin and I had previewing Western Michigan vs. Michigan.
Western Michigan went 4-2 last season and started the year 4-0. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened last year overall? What were the highs and lows?
Got off to a great start, played six games, all-conference opponents. And then after the great start — winning the first four, including that dramatic come from behind win at home against Toledo. And then went into week five undefeated and lost a shootout to Eastern Michigan here in Kalamazoo. That was a high-scoring affair and the Broncos defense was all banged up, people playing out of position trying to fill some voids and it didn’t work. Broncos scored a lot of points but gave up a lot of points and lost. But they still went into the last week of the season against Ball State with an opportunity to win the division and play for the MAC Championship in Detroit and dominated the Ball State Cardinals in every aspect but the final score. They were up and down the field, doubled them in time of possession and yardage, and just had a couple of turnovers that proved costly. Gave up some big plays on defense and Ball State went on to win by three and they went on to win the MAC Championship and won a bowl game too.
The Broncos remember that the finish didn’t go the way they had hoped. Neither did the previous season when they were in a similar situation and lost on the final day of the season. They’ve got a lot of veteran guys who were a part of both of those seasons, and they’re looking forward to finishing it out this year. But it’ll be tough. The MAC West Division is loaded again with Toledo and Central Michigan, Ball State, Eastern Michigan can put up some points, and Northern Illinois is getting better. The West Division of the MAC is usually pretty tough, top to bottom. And no question’s the case again this year.
Can you give us some background into head coach Tim Lester?
Tim is an alum, played quarterback for the Broncos back in the 90s. I called every one of his touchdown passes, and he threw a lot of them. He went on to play a little professional football and then went into coaching. Was a head coach at Division Two and the Division Three level, and then came to Western Michigan as a quarterbacks coach, and gained a lot of experience at the Division One level.
Went over to Syracuse and became offensive coordinator there, moved to Purdue as quarterbacks coach, and now the head coach at Western Michigan. This will be his fifth season. Tim has done everything but finish it out and win the division and play for a championship. That’s the goal this year. He’s got a veteran team returning 10 of 11 starters on defense and 9 of 11 starters on offense. They’re excited about their team and the prospects for the season, but it’s a difficult schedule starting with this game against Michigan.
You said the defensive side of the ball is returning a good amount of starters, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said that Western Michigan defensive coordinator Lou Esposito does a fantastic job. Last season Western Michigan was fifth in tackles for loss, ranked thirteenth in sacks, twentieth in pass rush according to Pro Football Focus. They did rank quite low in points allowed, ranked at 94 — but I believe there were some injuries last year. Can you talk about what makes the defense tick schematically, and the talent that they exude?
Coach Esposito runs a four 4-3 defense and likes to pressure the quarterback from the entire front, and all of those guys can rush the passer. One of the top players on the defense is defensive tackle Ralph Holley from Orchard Lake (St. Mary’s), he’s an outstanding football player. He’s a veteran. He’s really gotten his body in the shape. I’m looking for Ralph to have an outstanding season. He had a really good season a year ago.
And then in the second level at the linebacker spot, Trey Hayward moved on, he entered the transfer portal and ended up at Arizona. But Corvin Moment’s back there, 6-foot-2 250 pound middle linebacker, something that you don’t see a lot in the Mid American Conference — that kind of size at middle linebacker and Corvin can really bring it. He’s a very physical football player. So he plays in there.
And then one of the young men who missed the entire season is outside linebacker Zaire Barnes. He’s a young player that they really looked to last year to be a key guy, but he got hurt before the season began and didn’t play at all. So he’s healthy and ready to go now. And then Ryan Selig, who was a backup linebacker, but really excelled on special teams, who are into the role of a linebacker. And he’s an outstanding football player too. I think he’s really gonna be a guy that really rises to the top on the fence.
That difference though for the Broncos is going to be at the back end. They have a tremendous player in A.J. Thomas, a Detroit kid who played in the secondary at one of the safety spots, but because of the injuries last year, he had to move to linebacker. He can play the linebacker role and probably well in some situations, and also play at safety so they can move him around a little bit. He’s the leader of the defense — A.J. Thomas, number 6. He’s physical, he’s always around the football game, comes up with turnovers. He’s the guy to watch.
At the corner spot, they’re four deep now. And that was an area of concern. In the past, they just didn’t have cornerback play to avoid big plays. And Therran Coleman, who was a transfer from Pitt, missed all of last year didn’t play a down and he’s healthy and ready to go at one of the corners. And then they moved to DaShon Bussell, a physical wide receiver who played on special teams and you see his physicality over there. They decided to swap him over to the defense and his combination of speed and, and physicalness has really been an addition to the secondary.
They have some other players that can also play corner and not miss a beat. They’ve got some depth over there on defense, something that was sorely lacking a year ago. And hopefully, that’ll pay off this season for the Broncos because Western Michigan can score points. Their offense can put points on the board. It’s just been a matter of stopping the other guys. They hope to do that a little bit better this year.
Western Michigan quarterback Kaleb Eleby had quite the 2020 season — 18 touchdowns, only two interceptions. He had a passer rating that was only behind two people (the 15th pick in the draft, Alabama’s Mac Jones, and the number 2 pick in BYU’s Zach Wilson). Tell us about Eleby and his scouting report.
He’s a tremendous young man. He’s become the leader of the football team. He had to start as a true freshman the final four games of the season due to injury to the starter, I think he played in the bowl game against Zach Wilson out in Boise, Idaho, and held his own until Wilson went off in the second half and completed 17 straight passes and BYU went on the beat the Broncos in that bowl game.
But then next season, Kaleb did not take a snap. He tutored under Jon Wassink, the senior starter, and learned a lot from Jon. Did not play in any games, did not even get in a snap at the end of the game. But he learned a lot in practice. He learned a lot about the offense coach Tim Lester runs. And then last year he was anointed the starting quarterback and he lit it up. He threw 18 touchdown passes only two interceptions as you mentioned third in the nation in passing efficiency. The top quarterback in the Mid-American Conference, in my opinion. And when you watch him throw the football it’s just a thing of beauty. I mean, he’s got an NFL-caliber arm that can make all the throws, all the tough throws. He can throw them into tight windows, he can throw the deep ball over the top, he can throw the square and the dig routes over the middle. He’s not afraid to do that. And the arm strength that he displays is something that I’ve never seen in my 38 years of covering Western Michigan football — from any Broncos quarterback, or many opposing quarterbacks, for that matter, so he’s a special talent. And I encourage the fans that get in the stadium early to watch this kid in warm-ups throw the football and they’re gonna see what I’m talking about. And then hopefully it shows up in the game, but that’s going to be a tough challenge against a really good Michigan Wolverines team.
Sounds like Western Michigan has a quarterback but you’re only as good as your supporting cast, Can you highlight some of the other playmakers on offense that will aid Eleby and Western Michigan?
One of the guys who was on the receiving end a lot of those touchdowns last year was D’Wayne Eskridge. He was a second-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks and he’s gonna have a really good NFL career. So that target is gone, but not too many teams return two all-conference receivers as the Broncos do in Skyy Moore as a slot receiver and Jaylen Hall who can really go deep, and he’s a big, tall, physical receiver, who Kaleb can go to over the top. And so. Jaylen got seven touchdown passes last year, he’s a threat, and Skyy Moore’s an outstanding player who will be in his third year in the program. Those two guys are the top two receivers. And then there’s another young man Corey Crooms, who played a little bit last year he’s had a great fall for them. And a young man who transferred from Chattanooga to play Division One football for the Broncos — his name is Bryce Nunnelly and he’s had a really good camp, so they’ll be in the mix. So those four guys are probably the top four receivers and another redshirt freshman Kaveion Mac is really coming on too. They’ve got some options out there at wide receiver and some really good ones led by Skyy Moore and Jaylen Hall.
The last time Michigan and Western Michigan played it was a lopsided affair. It’s a different team, a different year. Ideally, what type of game is Western Michigan going to need to play on both sides of the ball to beat Michigan or give themselves a good shot?
Well, I don’t think they want to get into any kind of shootout. The Broncos like to run the football, Trevor. So they need to establish some kind of a running game which I think they are certainly capable of doing with an offensive line that returns four starters, a couple of position changes up there. Mike Caliendo, who’s been a four-year starter at left guard, moves over to center. And the center from last year was Lee French who played center because they needed him there has moved out to the left tackle to take the spot of Jaylon Moore, who is now in the NFL. And I really liked that position switch because Caliendo and is a super senior, he’s in his sixth year, he was part of the Cotton Bowl team of the Broncos and played a lot of football. He’s a 4.0 student in biomedical sciences. He’s one class away from his master’s degree. He’s the smartest player on the football team. And that’s the guy you want snapping the football for you because he does all the reads upfront for the offensive line. I really liked that position change. And I think the offensive line is going to be really solid. They needed to fill the left guard spot and they had three different guys rotating in there. And I think Trevor Campbell’s, who’s a veteran on the team kind of solidified that role, at least at the start of the season. And so you’ll see Trevor in there, he’s a solid offensive lineman. That offensive line can allow the Broncos to run a little bit to help set up the past for Kaleb. I think the offense could move the football a little bit on Saturday.
How about you personally, The Big House — how many times have you been there? Do you have a story that sticks out in your head about being there for a game?
I think the last time we were there the game got called lightning rainstorm, as I recall, but yeah, I’ve been there a few times. I grew up in Belleville, which is just down the road. I’ve been to Ann Arbor many times, it’s a great spot. It’s a historic spot for college football, it’s all about what’s gonna make Saturday so much fun, the fact that there will actually be people in the stands cheering for their respective teams. It’s going to be great because last year we were in front of cardboard cutouts and mom and dad and friends and siblings. That was a bad hit. So it’s gonna be fun to get back to somewhat normal operations and I know our players are really excited about it. They’ve been working hard this fall. I think they’re ready to go.
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