Duncan rejoins backup QB battle as Eckels prepares for second career start

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As Drew Eckels prepares to make his second career start Saturday, the competition behind him to serve as his primary backup continues to be fierce – and this week that competition welcomed an added element.

Steven Duncan, after being the Western Kentucky scout team player of the week last week while the Hilltoppers prepared for No. 5 Wisconsin, is eligible to take the field at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Maine at Houchens-Smith Stadium. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound redshirt-sophomore served a one-game suspension during the season-opener for an offseason arrest.

Duncan, redshirt-freshman Davis Shanley and true freshman Kevaris Thomas could all see the field this weekend.

“I think competition brings out the best in all those guys,” WKU quarterback coach Matt Mitchell said. “Those guys have done a good job of taking mental reps – we can’t give ‘em as many reps as Eckels, but they’ve done a good job of splitting reps and taking mental reps.”

Eckels is in no way in danger of losing his starting job after his opening-week performance. The senior completed 15 of 26 passes (working around several drops by his receivers) for 167 yards and, perhaps more importantly, was the team’s leading rusher with 38 yards on nine carries.

There are certainly areas to work on, however, as Eckels was just 8 of 17 passing on second and third down after going 7-for-8 on first down. And the Tops must continue to adjust to Eckels’ ability to scramble and how to turn those plays in positive gains.

“We’ve been able to put a decent amount on his plate,” Mitchell said of Eckels. “I think that we’ve been able to have a good amount of variety in the playbook. I think the next step is just improving in situational football – in the red zone and on third down, making good decisions and not forgetting a shift or a motion here or there.

“I thought he definitely played well, did some good things. I think his athleticism showed not just in scrambling and extending plays but also in the designed run game. I thought he made some really good reads and it kinda got him in a drive there in a flow with the run-game reads and he did a good job.”

Shanley, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound product of South Forsyth High School in Georgia, made his college debut at Wisconsin – and it wasn’t quite the scenario he envisioned. When Eckels was suddenly removed from the Wisconsin game to check a potential injury, Shanley was suddenly thrown into the fray.

“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “It was kinda unplanned and I just kinda ran on the field, and I was like, ‘Aw man I gotta get everybody lined up.’ I was freaking out a little bit, not gonna lie. Big, big stage. But I kinda felt comfortable after a couple plays.”

Shanley finished his night 2 of 3 passing for 14 yards and scampered 31 yards on three carries. He also showed glimpses of his speed and quickness, abilities that make him a dangerous option for the WKU offense moving forward.

“Confidence is key for quarterbacks and I just feel like I can go out there and do my job better than I did before the (Wisconsin) game,” he said. “You always have to be ready at this position. You always have to prepare like the starter and everybody has to be ready to go in at any point in the game.”

Whether Duncan or Davis plays Saturday will be dictated by the performance of Eckels and by the score of the game against the Black Bears (1-0). A good chance still remains all three backup QBs will see the field throughout the year as Western continues to develop its offensive identity.

“(Duncan’s) gonna really re-enter the competition (this week). He and Davis are gonna split up reps,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said. “And then the last piece is we gotta find a way to get the big fella, Kevaris Thomas, out there. I think this would be a great game to potentially allow him to play a little bit.

“That’s obviously four quarterbacks that are talented. I like that problem. I feel it bodes well for our future.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop