Western Michigan football is coming off of a huge win over Pittsburgh, which was arguably its biggest win under Tim Lester. This week, the Broncos are preparing to take on San José State for the first time in program history.
The Broncos will be without Lester on the sidelines this week as he tested positive for COVID-19 early this week and NCAA rules state that he must spend 10 days away from the team. This will allow Lester to return to the team in person next Thursday, in time to be back on the sideline against Buffalo.
Defensive coordinator Lou Esposito will be the acting head coach for WMU Saturday against the Spartans. Lester expressed confidence in Esposito handling those duties because he has been a head coach before. Esposito was in charge at D-II Saint Joseph’s from 2005-09 and at NAIA Davenport in 2016.
“As far as the meetings, who’s been speaking to the team after practices, coach Espo’s been handling that from the jump,” Lester said. “He’s been a head coach, he knows exactly what’s coming. He’s done a great job, and I haven’t been far away, I’m on every TV screen talking to him at the same time.”
Lester will not be allowed to have any contact with the team Saturday as the game is in action. He said this week has not been too difficult to deal with being away from the team since he has still been so involved virtually but Saturday will be an unusual and difficult day.
“This week has not been all that different as far as my contact with my coaches and the game-planning and the staff meetings,” Lester said. “I think Saturday’s going to be way different. That’s something I’ll have to deal with.”
The Broncos took a banged-up defense into its game at Pitt and will still have some lingering injuries this week, but a few players will be returning from injury as well.
Lester said that Bricen Garner is still dealing with an injury he sustained during the game at Pitt but it might not cause him to miss the game. He listed AJ Thomas as doubtful, saying Thomas was moving better this week but was not back to 100% yet. Ryan Selig will be back in the lineup at linebacker for the Broncos, but DaShon Bussell will still be unavailable at cornerback.
Delano Ware played just one snap last week against Pitt, and Lester said he will be back to full participation this week. That comes as a relief if Thomas and/or Garner are unable to go for WMU at safety.
That defense will be charged with stopping an impressive quarterback in Nick Starkel, who bounced around from Texas A&M to Arkansas before landing at San José State last year. Once at SJSU, Starkel took off, throwing for 2174 yards and 17 touchdowns in eight games as he led the Spartans to a Mountain West Championship and its second postseason ranking in the AP Poll in program history.
“Extremely talented, great arm whip, played a ton of college football,” Lester said about Starkel. “He is a guy that we’ve been hearing about and we need to be ready for. He’s not going to run all over the place but he can do it from the pocket.”
When asked if there were any players or schemes that worried Lester when watching film of the Spartans’ defense, he said there weren’t schemes that he felt uncomfortable with and that SJSU runs several defensive sets similar to WMU. He had one player that concerned him.
“Number 42 (Villiami Fehoko), he’s to our right, defensive end, he’s a dude,” Lester said. “He can run, and their whole front is big and physical.”
Fehoko made 36 tackles in the eight-game season last year including 12.5 in the backfield while collecting six sacks and three pass deflections. Through two games this year, Fehoko has six tackles, 1.5 for loss and a sack.
Kaleb Eleby and Zaire Barnes both earned MAC West Player of the Week honors for their performances in the win over Pitt. Lester raved about what Eleby has been able to do so far this season.
“He’s super accurate with the ball,” Lester said about his quarterback. “His attention to detail in our RPO game Saturday needed to be almost perfect, and he was. So, he’s continued to be efficient and explosive, and that’s hard to do.”
Eleby threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns against the Panthers, and now has 702 yards and five touchdowns on the season without an interception while completing 62% of his passes. Barnes made 10 tackles, including two for loss, in the win and recovered two fumbles.
“Just to watch a guy come through adversity, Zaire’s one of our best players, always been one of our best players, complete competitor, and then watching him blow his knee out last camp was just terrible,” Lester said. “He came back and he wasn’t the same guy because he wasn’t trusting it 100% yet, and then he’s just getting better every time he’s out there. He looked like Zaire Barnes on Saturday.”
WMU looks to continue building momentum ahead of conference play against San José State Saturday at 2 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.