After early-season injury, Eckels hopes to help Tops in second half of the season

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An offense still lacking any sort of concrete identity is also still searching for consistent play at the quarterback position one week after hoping to rectify that issue.

Western Kentucky went into Saturday’s game at Charlotte wanting to find reliable continuity at the QB spot. Second-year coach Mike Sanford gave the ball to Davis Shanley – and while Shanley played well in spurts and completed 69 percent of his throws, he also gave up two interceptions.

And then Steven Duncan came on late to throw the game’s only TD pass for WKU (1-5, 0-2 Conference USA) in a 40-14 loss.

And earlier in the contest freshman Kevaris Thomas rushed for the Tops’ first score of the game.

And meanwhile redshirt-senior Drew Eckels, the year’s opening-day starter, watched from the sideline in uniform waiting to hopefully return soon from a pair of shoulder injuries.

“What we don’t want to get into is a situation where we’re overly reactionary because no matter who it is (starting at quarterback), and we’re obviously gonna put a guy out there to start the game out, we just don’t wanna be reactionary,” Sanford said. “These are all guys that are playing for the first time.

“I think (Thomas) provided a nice spark for us. He’s capable, obviously, in a lot of ways, to be a great quarterback here. I think getting Drew Eckels back, who was our early-season starter, he’s gonna be back and we’re gonna see what he can do this week. He practiced toward the tail-end of last week, he went through warmups, he’s getting close. So we’re gonna make a decision and I think the biggest thing is we can’t be overly reactionary in terms of what happens because at the end of the day whoever is out there, you’re gonna have to work with and through some of the situations because it’s really their third time playing no matter who it is.”

Quarterback complications were a concern at the season’s outset. Could Western continue the strain of dominant play from the position? The program’s last three starting QBs – Kawaun Jakes, Brandon Doughty and Mike White, respectively – started multiple seasons and led the Hilltoppers to some of the bigger wins in school history.

Eckels put in his time behind Doughty and White during the last few seasons and was poised to continue that trend of stellar QB play. But after starting a 34-3 loss at Wisconsin and a 31-28 loss to Maine, Eckels has been forced to watch from the bench while healing his body.

“It’s hard. You have one year left, trying to make the most of it,” Eckels said. “Just the injuries that have been happening, everyone that knows me knows I’ve been giving it my all. And no matter what as a team we’re gonna get better and we’re gonna move on.

“I just tried to coach the guys anyway I could (while I was out), have them let me know from my vantage point from the sideline anything, any type of question they needed I’d answer it.”

In the weeks since Eckels left the playing field Western Kentucky has lost to Louisville, Marshall and Charlotte and beaten Ball State. Shanley and Duncan have rotated quite a bit during that stretch while Thomas made his second career appearance last week – he rushed three times for 10 yards and scored on a 4-yard run, but has yet to throw his first collegiate pass.

Shanley was listed on the team’s official depth chart as the starter going into this week, but nothing at that position should be written in permanent ink.

“At the end of the day, our quarterbacks, all of them that have played and will play, are truly first-time starters and none of ‘em have started more than two games in their careers in college football,” Sanford said. “We gotta remember that we’re all accustomed to seeing a veteran Mike White and we’re all accustomed to seeing a veteran Brandon Doughty. That’s really been the last five years.

“All these guys are playing well. They’re battling and obviously we can’t be incredibly reactionary like we all wanna be and have to let them work through some of what they need to work through.”

The next six games could be the final six in the career of Eckels if the Hilltoppers can’t miraculously rally to reach six wins and a bowl berth. The Daytona, Fla., product has been limited to throwing just 91 passes the past four years.

He may not throw another, or he may be asked to lead his team out of the current state of affairs.

“I’m gonna help the team no matter what," Eckels said. "Coaches will make the right decision and whatever the decision’s gonna be I’m gonna be able to help the team no matter what.

“It’s all a learning experience. Everyone goes through adversity. It’s how you react. The younger guys look up to the seniors as our group. And we’re not doing so well right now. We’re trying to let them know what road to the instead of just hanging your head and being negative. You gotta fight through it and you gotta answer with the right things.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop