Four weeks into the 2018 season, Western Kentucky has quite the quarterback conundrum on its hands.
All four of the program’s scholarship quarterbacks have played and three of them have all started at least one game. Western is the only team in college football’s Bowl Subdivision to have started three different quarterbacks thus far.
Problem? Well, not yet.
Drew Eckels, Davis Shanley and Steven Duncan, the three QBs who have taken the majority of the snaps at the position, have all played well at times through four games. Come Oct. 13, when the Hilltoppers (1-3) resume play following a bye week, those three could all be 100 percent healthy and ready to go for the pivotal stretch run of the season.
“To have three quarterbacks ready to play, let alone one or two, been very pleased with that group and how they’ve responded and the unit they’ve kind’ve proved themselves to be,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said Monday.
When WKU hosts Marshall (2-1) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday either Duncan or Shanley will get their second career start. Until that time here’s a closer look at the Tops’ quarterbacks, where they stand and where they are headed:
Sanford said Monday that Eckels began to throw again as he tries to make his way back from a shoulder injury suffered during the 31-28 loss to Maine on Sept. 8.
Before being sidelined the redshirt-senior from Daytona, Fla., was 38-for-67 with three touchdown passes – all 32 yards or longer.
Eckels had thrown just 24 career passes coming into the year and his lone TD throw came in 2016 against Alabama. But his leadership and command of the offense in fall camp gave him the right to take the reins of Sanford’s offense for departed QB Mike White who is now with the Dallas Cowboys.
In the opener at Wisconsin, Eckels (6-3, 220) also had nine carries for 38 yards. Against Maine he was sacked six times.
“We’re gonna take it one day at a time this week with (Eckels),” Sanford said. “The fact that he was able to throw the football this week was obviously encouraging news for us. We’ll take it one day at a time and progress as we see fit.
“He’s not in any type of preventative device any more to immobilize movements and he began his throwing progressions.”
Lucky Jackson’s second TD of the night after Drew Eckels buys some time pic.twitter.com/lZvilsxEw9— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 9, 2018
Expect to see more designed runs for WKU’s QBs like this one for Eckels pic.twitter.com/jXfnUSzfNm— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 4, 2018
Drew Eckels’ ability to extend plays will be crucial this season for WKU pic.twitter.com/G6sueSlgyk— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 4, 2018
Shanley appeared to be the next man up for the long haul given his play in three of the Tops’ first four games.
A redshirt-freshman from metro Atlanta, Shanley (6-1, 190) came on late at Wisconsin and completed 2 of 3 passes for 14 yards while rushing for 31 yards – but he also lost a fumble inside the 5.
Two weeks later, with Eckels officially out, Shanley came off the bench to ignite the Western offense to a 14-0 lead at Louisville (a lead that eventually evaporated in 20-17 defeat). Shanley was 22 of 33 passing that night with a touchdown and also ran in a score.
That performance earned him a start last week at Ball State, and through two quarters, he was 13 of 19 through the air to go along with 16 yards rushing. But somewhere along the way he took a knock to the shoulder and when he came out for the third quarter Sanford knew he had to make yet another QB switch.
“Davis Shanley, I thought, did a nice job managing some long fields, flipping the field, being efficient – there’s probably about two throws he’d like to have back,” Sanford said. “(He) didn’t have any significant ligament damage or any kind of tear (in his shoulder).”
Shanley’s third-down scramble here helped set up WKU’s first TD of the day pic.twitter.com/agx1ow0swB— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 23, 2018
Really liked how Shanley checks his progressions here, finds Jackson for a big gain pic.twitter.com/XNnRL7eHgz— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 23, 2018
A key play early in the game – Davis Shanley connects with Quin Jernighan on third down from WKU’s own end zone pic.twitter.com/rqeT2ONY2T— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 23, 2018
Shanley put WKU up 14-0 (got a key block here from Fourtenbary) pic.twitter.com/1GRzuebWjx— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
Shanley to Quin Jernighan on a nifty little play here pic.twitter.com/k0Kze69biA— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
Davis Shanley with a missile to Kyle Fourtenbary for the game’s first TD pic.twitter.com/wYe3QoxNL5— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
Using the QB draw – here with Davis Shanley – could be a key component for the WKU offense moving forward pic.twitter.com/7Xv98VnNhD— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
Another nice Shanley run here, although he certainly paid the price for it pic.twitter.com/myVd8rVzCF— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 4, 2018
You got your first look at WKU backup QB Davis Shanley and what he can do when he gets to the edge pic.twitter.com/CnyZjzfQ0T— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 4, 2018
Duncan actually started Week 3 at Louisville and was cruising right along to the tune of three completions for 20 yards on his first four throws. But his fifth pass was a misfire, a ball picked off by linebacker C.J. Avery sitting underneath the coverage in the middle of the field.
Duncan was benched and it appeared his opportunity for playing time was lost. Of course that all changed with WKU down 13-7 in the third quarter Saturday in Muncie, Ind.
“After last week it would’ve been easy for me to hang my head,” Duncan said of the Louisville game. “(But it was) my drive to wanna do better and hold myself to a higher standard because I knew that wasn’t me – I made mistakes in that game. Just being able to come back out here with these guys – these guys came up to me right when they knew in was coming in and I said, ‘Hey, let’s do it. Second chances don’t come for no reason.’ ”
Duncan finished the day 12 of 16 for 94 yards and completed two touchdown passes, both of which gave WKU one-point leads at the time. Perhaps more impressive was his ability to tuck the ball and run six times for 55 yards.
Duncan’s 27-yard scramble in the third quarter was Western’s first rush for 20 yards or more in 16 games.
“I think a lot of people thought that Steven Duncan was the guy that was gonna be your heir apparent to Mike White in terms of the big body, big-arm type guy,” Sanford said. “What he showed in that game is our first 20-plus-yard rush since we’ve been here. He’s a very decisive runner. Very aggressive runner, very tough to tackle.”
From outside Charleston, S.C., Duncan (6-4, 230) made his debut and his one and only appearance last year in a 45-14 win against Charlotte.
Steven Duncan to Mik’Quan Deane to put the Hilltoppers ahead 21-20 pic.twitter.com/rHeHb8MS0T— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 23, 2018
Soak it up everyone – WKU’s first run of 20 yards or more in a long, long time pic.twitter.com/lfWVhX3i7x— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 23, 2018
Duncan to Deane pic.twitter.com/dUr300NLJe— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 22, 2018
Steven Duncan started Saturday’s game at QB for WKU and was moving the ball well until this interception pic.twitter.com/GKQWsYl09s— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
The one QB out of the quartet yet to make much of a major impact has been Kevaris Thomas.
A 6-foot-4, 250-pound true freshman, Thomas came from Lakeland, Fla., as WKU’s first-ever four-star signee. He’s been limited to one play thus far – on 3rd-and-4 against Maine on Sept. 8 on the 36-yard line going in, Thomas picked up five yards on a quarterback run to the right.
While Thomas continues to train and tries to grasp Western’s offensive system he could use this year as a redshirt season so long as he doesn’t play in more than three more games.
IN AN EMERGENCY
What if Eckels, Shanley, Duncan or Thomas all can’t go?
Western would have some options in such a situation starting with true freshman walk-on Drake Peer. Peer (6-foot, 185) played last season at Knoxville West High School in Tennessee.
If things really got interesting WKU could turn to freshman wide receiver Kawan Williams – who threw for 843 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior last year in Savannah, Ga. – or redshirt-freshman Rex Henderson who totaled 7,525 yards passing at Butler County High School.
THE COMPETITION MOVING FORWARD
Western Kentucky has eight games remaining and seven straight starting Oct. 13. All eight contests are Conference USA matchups.
If all four scholarship QBs are healthy Sanford’s decision on which one he wants to play will be difficult. That decision now appears even more challenging with Eckels, Shanley and Duncan having all shown the ability to lead scoring drives.
It’s likely that Duncan will get the nod this week unless Davis or Eckels – or both – are medically cleared to fully participate.
“We’re gonna really see how it goes in practice. We truly are,” Sanford said. “We’re gonna see how the availability of each one of ‘em’s gonna be, that's gonna be a big part of that equation. Then the productivity of them. Going into this game I do think that you do have three different quarterbacks that all give you something potentially dynamic in different areas.”
The WKU program hasn’t really had this much fluctuation at the QB position since 2009 when Kawaun Jakes took the starting job from Brandon Smith and never looked back. In 2008 and 2007 David Wolke, K.J. Black and Smith all saw time under center.
Whether Western continues to play multiple quarterbacks or ride with one for the majority of the rest of the year remains to be seen. Or maybe playing multiple guys at the position could turn into an advantage?
“I think those guys all bring something different to the table. Quite honestly if you watch us right now as an opponent, you don’t know which quarterback to prepare for,” Sanford said. “They’re all a little bit different, they all do some really good things.
“I’ve been really proud of how they’ve responded to various situations. Honestly that’s not coaching. That’s them. That’s them being ready. Steve Duncan could have very early tanked it after the Louisville game and Shanley going in there series three. But (Duncan) did the exact opposite. He came in and was ready to attack his opportunity in the second half.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop