Western Michigan QB Kaleb Eleby juggling ‘whirlwind of emotions’ ahead of NFL draft

Detroit Free Press

It was the best birthday gift a football-obsessed 4-year-old could ask for, and as little kids are prone to do, Kaleb Eleby played it more times than anyone in his house cared to count.

Growing up in St. Louis, Eleby dreamed of playing quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, and his mother did everything possible to nurture that dream.

She caught passes for her son in the backyard. She bought him a Rams starter set, complete with his own jersey and plastic helmet. And for his fourth birthday, Kenyatta Eleby had a CD made at a local mall that became a soundtrack of sorts for Kaleb’s life.

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Now introducing, from the St. Louis Rams, starting quarterback Kaleb Eleby.

“They had the crowd effects going wild,” Kenyatta recalled. “Oh my gosh, he wore that CD out. Like it was every day. He would come down the hallway from the back room and he would have on — cause we had this like football little outfit thing that we got from J.C. Penny or something, and he would put that thing on and he would come running down the hallway with his football and playing that CD. We were like, ‘Oh my god.’”

Kaleb rifled passes to whoever was around as he ran down the hallway, winning make-believe Super Bowls as the crowd cheered his name.

Eighteen years later, Eleby is hoping to hear his name called again, this time in next week’s NFL draft.

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A starter for parts of three seasons at Western Michigan, Eleby is vying to become the first Broncos quarterback selected in modern draft history. He finished his WMU career with 6,084 yards passing and a 45-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio and is considered a potential Day 3 pick.

“It’s a whirlwind of emotions, for lack of better words,” Eleby told the Free Press earlier this month. “The excitement, the anxiousness. The unknown. It’s fun. And when you look at it, it’s a great problem to have. No doubt, it’s a great problem to have.”

A second-team All-Mid-American Conference selection, Eleby left school with two years of eligibility remaining in the hopes that his experience would elevate his status as a draft prospect.

Thrust into playing time as a true freshman, Eleby started five games in place of an injured Jon Wassink before redshirting as a sophomore in 2019. He threw multiple touchdown passes in five of his six games during Western’s pandemic-shortened 2020 season, then led the Broncos to an 8-5 record last year that included an early-season win over Pitt, when he went throw-for-throw with one of the draft’s top quarterback prospects, Kenny Pickett.

Eleby completed 23 of 34 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns in that game. Pickett was 23 of 31 for 382 yards and six scores.

“That was probably one of the biggest wins in program history,” Eleby said.

While Eleby’s performance against Pitt and the memorable comeback he led against Toledo, when he threw the game-winning touchdown pass on a fake spike, cemented his status as a draft prospect, Eleby’s high school coach, former Northern Illinois star Steve Smith, said Eleby has been trending in that direction for a while.

“The first time that I meet him, he told me, he said, ‘You do know I’m going to be your starting quarterback, right?’” Smith said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK. You’re in eighth grade. You’re going to be my starting quarterback.’ I’d heard about him but I had never seen him play at this point. And I’m like, ‘OK, whatever.’

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“And then that summer, we do seven-on-sevens with other teams in the summertime and he wasn’t the first quarterback in our group. We had a guy that was going to be a senior quarterback, but the other kid could also play receiver. So a few plays in, we put Kaleb in at quarterback and I was like, ‘Well, he’s never coming out again.’ It was that quick.”

Eleby started all four seasons at Maryland Heights (Missouri) Pattonville High and led the Pirates to the Missouri state championship game in 2017.

He signed with Western Michigan over offers from Illinois, Iowa State and a handful of other Power Five schools, and Smith said he saw Eleby blossom as a player and a leader after high school.

Two years ago, Pattonville security called Smith one July morning to tell him there was a group of kids on the high school field. Smith drove to school to shoo them away, only to find out it was Eleby, home for the summer, leading a group of local college players in workouts.

“It’s just not kids in my school,” Smith said. “Kids from around our area that are in his age bracket, some people in the NFL right now, a lot of guys in college, they all, they gravitate towards each other. He’s like a real leader amongst these guys and again it’s just because his demeanor and his personality, people gravitate to him. Like I told him all the time, ‘Look, you can be a positive influence or a negative influence,’ and he’s out here being a positive influence.”

Eleby said he hopes NFL teams take note of his leadership skills as well his football ability. He met with Lions quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell at the combine in March and said his only hope for draft day is to land with a team that “believes in me.”

“Sometimes you just got to remind yourself, the next time I put on a jersey it’ll be for an NFL team and that’s a blessing, man, to be able to say and to be able to be in this position,” he said. “I’m the oldest of five so I have four younger brothers and to be able to pave the way for them and show them that hard work does pay off and commitment, sacrifice, things that have gotten (me) to this point, it’s how you get here kind of thing.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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