2022 G5 Preview: Tim Lester's Western Michigan Might Just Never Break Through
Kaleb Eleby couldn't get WMU over the hump. Can anyone?
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There’s a case to be made that Kaleb Eleby, for all of his talent, didn’t fit what Tim Lester wants his offense to be at Western Michigan. Lester has found himself increasingly fond of the RPO game, designing some cool looks in recent years but relying on – sometimes far too much – the RPO as the entire identity of his offense, both on the ground and through the air.
In some places, that worked. Western Michigan ran the hell out of the ball in the back half of the season and found a pair of really nice halfbacks in Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson in the process while developing a pretty strong run-blocking group up front.
In others, it felt more like a missed opportunity. WMU’s offense was good all year, but the big-armed Eleby seemed capable of so much more than what he was being asked to do, and a really good receiver room fell too often into the trap of just not really having any chances to win matchups on the outside. Skyy Moore was outstanding and put up big numbers, Jaylen Hall was all but unstoppable on 50/50 balls and Corey Crooms could do a little bit of everything but all three often ran the kind of routes that you’d assign to a receiver room largely devoid of talent.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Western Michigan’s offense could have been so much more, and that it was putting a cap on its ceiling by limiting Eleby’s options down the field with so many quick-hit passes and routes that just did not allow for receivers to make plays.
Granted, the offensive line was not good in pass protection and Lester basically said as much on several occasions. Eleby is not a strong runner and the Broncos struggled at times with keeping him upright when he did try to throw more down the field, which is ultimately what doomed them against Michigan early in the season. But that really serves less as an explanation for the shortcomings Western Michigan faced in 2021 and more as a red flag that this program may have already been everything it can realistically be under Lester.
He’s entering his sixth year in town and just has his best season yet, but that best season was… 8-5, with a bowl win over a dead Nevada team, an extremely narrow win over Akron, losses to both in-state rivals and a 1-4 record in the West division, claiming the lone win against an NIU team that had already clinched the division title. The offense was markedly worse than in 2020, the defense was bad for the fourth time in five years, and now Lester’s marquee quarterback is heading to the NFL, where he’s somewhat likely to do better as a late-round pick than he did with WMU in 2021 because of how poorly his skillset was utilized.
Eight wins is eight wins, and it’s not something that should be taken for granted in this league, but WMU’s two best offensive players are gone, the entire secondary – which was not good – had senior eligibility last year, as did two other starters on the defense, and this offseason’s biggest win is either securing transfers from three P5 transfers without any significant playing time or landing the No. 8 class in the MAC.
It’s not like the doors are falling off here – bowl eligibility should still be a possibility – but relative to its in-state rivals and counterparts in the West, things aren’t exactly going super well for Western Michigan. You can’t really fire a program legend for going 8-5, and there’s no way that any program can allow a lame-duck coach situation, so Western Michigan is stuck with its recent Lester extension. It keeps him around through 2025 (not exactly a rousing endorsement) and adds a year any time he wins at least eight games. That’s just about the best that could be done under the circumstances.
That’s a lot of pessimism. It’s merited, but it’s a lot all the same. The positive path here isn’t especially easy to identify but there is one, and it’s worth pointing out in this space.
It leans heavily on the replacement at QB for Eleby and his fit with new offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne, who won a national title at North Central College in 2019 and appeared in another title game this past year. His offenses with the Cardinals were fantastic and produced huge passing numbers, though an effective quarterback is a pretty critical part of that, and WMU’s answer there is foggy.
Jack Salopek is the in-house solution but threw only five passes last year, while Alabama walk-on Stone Hollenbach is the newcomer. It’s a little hard to believe that WMU would bring in a P5 transfer at quarterback without the intention to start him, but he also played his high school ball at Southern Columbia, which runs the flexbone. It is impossible to say if that is bad for a quarterback.
If one of those two does fit well with Thorne, things are suddenly looking up for the Broncos. Both of those running backs return as mentioned and should be among the MAC’s best. The Moore departure hurts, as does Hall’s transfer to Western Kentucky, but Crooms returns and this is not a group lacking for talent. The offensive line started three seniors but may not be hurting for some fresh faces if those players are leaving – save for center Mike Caliendo, who was very good and is out of eligibility.
Defensively, it’s probably going to be pretty rough again. The secondary is in significant flux and has turned to a former three-star who played very few snaps for Purdue in Anthony Romphf in the portal as a potential solution, along with a herd of talented but green youngsters.
MAC defensive player of the year Ali Fayad is gone from the defensive end spot opposite returning junior Andre Carter (who was fine) and tackle Ralph Holley is going with him, leaving a similar situation for junior Braden Fiske. Marshawn Kneeland should be in for much more time at end after impressing last season. The other tackle spot looks to be earmarked for a transfer, either Purdue’s Bryce Austin or Warren Dabney of VMI, where he was a first-team All-Southern selection.
Zaire Barned and Corvin Moment offer more experience at linebacker than any other spot on the team, and Dorian Jackson does return at corner, so the cupboard is not without any veteran experience. There just isn’t a whole lot of it.
And with an offense that’s likely going to deal with some growing pains opposite it, that’s just not inspiring. A surprise at QB is not impossible, nor is an improvement on the defensive side of the ball because of some young players taking larger steps than expected. More likely, though, is a down season for a team that didn’t generate nearly as much goodwill in 2021 as it probably should have, and that will now likely face a rebuilding season without the hardware that usually comes from the kind of roster whose decimation requires a rebuild.