A reluctant move to Eastern Washington’s offensive line turned out to be a fruitful change for Kaleb Levao.
If not for the switch from defense in 2016, his college career would likely be over. Instead, Levao swiftly developed into an All-Big Sky Conference right guard.
Levao suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 of the 2017 season when center Spencer Blackburn inadvertently piled a North Dakota State defender onto his leg.
The Aberdeen, Washington, native was granted a sixth year of eligibility earlier this year because of that injury, having redshirted in 2014, the year he enrolled into the Cheney school as a bullish defensive tackle.
“In retrospect, the move to offense was a really good thing, and I’m still playing in college,” Levao said. “I’ve had success at this position, but there were times I definitely missed being on defense.”
Jase Butorac, EWU’s third-year offensive line coach, was a fifth-year senior center for the Eagles during Levao’s redshirt season, when the two often locked up in drills.
A year later in 2015, Butorac was a graduate assistant on the coaching staff and Levao saw limited time, totaling 14 tackles and a sack in eight games, missing three games due to injury.
Levao figured he’d be have a more substantial role in 2016 on the Eagles’ defensive front, but then-offensive line coach Aaron Best – now EWU’s third-year head coach – was thin on depth.
Best needed the 6-foot-4, 300-pound ex-basketball player with good feet, and Levao was forced to exchange his red defensive practice jersey in for a white one.
“I think it was a pretty big shock to him when he got moved over,” Butorac said. “He did not want to play offensive line at first.”
Blackburn, also a sixth-year senior, echoed Butorac.
“He had a couple of weeks of not really being into it, wanting to still be a defensive lineman,” Blackburn said. “But once he committed, he’s been a really good player.”
Levao was primarily a backup in 2016, playing tackle and guard, and earned his first start against Central Arkansas in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs when a starter went down with an injury.
He’s been a key figure on EWU’s consistently successful offensive line since, starting the first two games for EWU in 2017 before his injury and all of the 2018 season, earning All-Big Sky second-team honors after helping the Eagles set the program’s single-season rushing record (3,839 yards).
“Kaleb Levao, without question, has embraced the move after the 2016 season, and I commend him,” Best said.
Blackburn, an All-American, Levao, and returning starting tackles Chris Schlichting and Tristen Taylor comprise one of the most experienced and decorated offensive lines at the FCS level.
Butorac and Blackburn have seen Levao blossom the past two seasons.
“He’s a gritty guy. Will play through a lot of injuries,” Blackburn said. He’s kind of been banged up his entire career, and he’s never taken a shortcut.”
“He cares a lot about doing the little things correctly, and he has the athletic ability that’s helped him be successful,” Butorac said.
It runs in the family.
Levao’s younger brother, Kohl Levao (6-6, 340), is a fourth-year senior offensive lineman at the University of Hawaii, where he was recently named to a pair of preseason watch lists: Polynesian College Player of the Year and the Rimington Trophy, given to the best center in college football.
Kaleb Levao, who walked at graduation this past spring after majoring in communications and minoring in women’s studies, turns 24 years old this month.
The soft-spoken Levao is OK with being team’s the Eagles’ wise, old sage.
“It’s different being a sixth-year player, but at the same time it feels like I’m just playing ball with my brothers again,” Levao said. “I feel like there’s a certain level of experience that comes with it, because I’ve been here so long.
“But I’m just happy to be out here. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
EWU begins the home portion of its schedule Saturday against Lindenwood University, an NCAA Division II school from St. Charles, Missouri. Kickoff is at 1:05 p.m.
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