Tag Archives: P.J. Fleck

2017 Big Ten Predictions

I almost canceled my Bold Big Ten Predictions last season after I made some questionable calls from 2015. But last season, well, I’m going to take a moment to brag and have my confidence restored. I completely nailed the decline of Michigan State, Iowa’s C.J. Beathard, and that the Big Ten would come down to the very last game of the season. Although I might have been a tad off on Indiana getting to eight wins.

Let’s focus on the positives and forget the stuff I got wrong and get on with this year’s bold predictions.

The Big Ten East is a mess again and it’s glorious

I know both teams are loaded with talent, but Michigan and Ohio State sent a ton of players to the NFL last season. Penn State lost their top receiver but bring back Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley. Those are your big three in the East that are going to be jockeying for the top spot.

Penn State gets Michigan at home and goes to the Horseshoe but Ohio State goes north for the 2017 version of The Game. There’s a chance that they all end up at the last game of the season at 11-1. It’s unlikely but possible. I see a team like Indiana throwing a wrench into things or possible P.J. Fleck making his mark on the Big Ten world when the Buckeyes go to Minnesota.

Since they got a decent ranking to start the season, the Nittany Lions could potentially end up as the highest ranked team when it’s all said and done and they’re my pick to win the East.

A new contender rises in the Big Ten West

OK, here we go again. Get your purple and white ready because we’re getting back on the Northwestern bandwagon! I’ve been saying for a while that head coach Pat Fitzgerald has been criminally underappreciated by everyone but Northwestern fans. This year he’s going to force them to appreciate him as the Wildcats win the Big Ten West after they return almost everyone from 2016.

Stick with me because this makes sense instead of a hunch.

Northwestern should enter Week Four at 3-0 and headed to Wisconsin followed by Penn State at home. That’s rough and they’ll probably enter Week Six at 3-2. After that, the toughest game for Northwestern is traveling to Nebraska who lost basically everyone from 2016.

Wisconsin has an unproven young quarterback in Alex Hornibrook who lost his job last season. They end the season on the road at Indiana, home for Iowa and Michigan, and then back on the road to Minnesota. That is a rough stretch and I think the Badgers split the series at best. Wisconsin stumbles at the end and Northwestern finishes strong to end at 10-2 and their first trip to Indianapolis.

The Big Ten dominates the rankings

As you might’ve guessed, I expect the Big Ten to be pretty good this season. It’s going to be one of those years where the teams keep beating one another to prevent any one team from getting too high up in the polls but there’s going to be a lot of them there. You’ve got the obvious teams in Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State in the rankings to start the season. As you might expect, I’m predicting Wisconsin and Northwestern to find themselves in the top twenty to top fifteen.

Then there’s Minnesota. Maybe it’s because I have ESPN and their show on P.J. Fleck on but that guy just seems special. I think Minnesota is going to shock some people and spent a healthy part of their season inside the Top 25.

Bonus super bold prediction: Jim Harbaugh gets someone from the SEC mad again.

I know, super bold, right?

Image courtesy Flickr

E-mail Tim at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @tbach84.

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College Football’s Opening Weekend Owes Us More

I love college football just as much as the next guy.  Saturdays aren’t for the boys so much as they are for the boys to gather around a big screen, drinking as many 96-calorie Miller Lite’s as they’d like.  We’ve yet to find anything that comes anywhere near college football’s ability to help us justify that weekly decision.

We owe a lot to college football Saturdays.  When I pick through the Week 1 schedule we have lined up for Labor Day weekend, though, it feels like college football owes us a little more.

Stanford is beginning its season with a game in Sydney, Australia.  That’s cool.  The fact that the Rice Owls are the opposition is not cool.  There’s a Florida rivalry game right off the bat.  Unfortunately, it’s between Florida International and Central Florida.  University Alabama-Birmingham makes its glorious return to football after a two-year hiatus, against Alabama A&M.  How have we possibly contained our excitement all summer?

In all seriousness, there are some things worth looking forward to.  P.J. Fleck, Lane Kiffin, and Tom Herman take the field with their new teams for the first time.  Ohio State opens on the road, on a Thursday night, against a conference opponent for the first time in… probably ever.  Florida State and Alabama collide in a top-five matchup in Atlanta.  Michigan and Florida head for Jerry World and a top-15ish meeting.  West Virginia and Virginia Tech will likely both be ranked for their opening contest in Landover, Maryland.

If you’re not a fan of those programs, you’ll probably be forced to watch your team playing in a glorified scrimmage.  Whether your team is the one laying the beat down or getting its ass kicked makes no difference, really.  Nobody wins if the boys had to finish the Miller Lite by halftime just to make it interesting.

At what point do we stop flooding to football just because it’s back?  At what point do we demand more as consumers, as opposed to blindly accepting whatever we’re given?  My guess is that will never happen.  Until it does, we’ll continue to receive a mediocre slate of games on opening weekend, with the only ones truly worth watching happening hundreds of miles off campus, in NFL stadiums.

This is big business we’re talking about and there’s a ton of money involved in these neutral-site games.  I understand that.  Still, it pisses me off.  These are essentially bowl games.  Actually, these games are more important because the whole season is still ahead.  If money grabbing is what we’re doing now, and it most certainly is, then why not take it to the extreme?

What Can We Do?

Let’s schedule bowl game rematches for the first week of the season.  Think for just a second about the storylines.  Would Clemson be able to pull off another upset of Alabama eight months after their instant classic?  Could USC and Penn State replicate the craziness of last year’s Rose Bowl Game?  Is Lamar Jackson really that containable, or did LSU’s defense just do everything right that day?

Wouldn’t it be fun if the two semifinal losers got a crack at each other to start the new season?  Imagine the hype that would surround a Washington-Ohio State clash in a couple weeks.  Automatically, one of the top contenders to reach the playoff would have an impressive feather tucked into its cap.  The four-letter network could have a field day with that buildup.

If your team was not invited to participate in a bowl game the previous year, it can do whatever it would like.  Honestly, nobody outside of the school gives a damn about your five-win team.  I’m only concerned with the primetime programs here.  And in tying them all up in these bowl game rematches, I am, in turn, saving a lot of you from an opening week embarrassment anyway.  It’s a win-win, even for the losers.  You should be thanking me for ignoring your meaningless team.

Is this grand idea ever going to materialize?  No, it won’t.  Like so many things in the world of college football, it makes too much sense to become a reality.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to dream, especially when the boys still have two weeks to save up their beer money.

E-mail Mitch at [email protected] and follow him @GreatGatzke.

Photo: Wikipedia

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Burning Big Ten Questions for 2017

It’s almost time for football and thank goodness for that.

As the days count down, everyone’s focusing on the big questions. Well, there are more questions to ask besides whether or not Ohio State is ahead of schedule in their rebuild or what flavor ice cream Jim Harbaugh is eating. I’m only partially kidding as it’s been mentioned before. If there was an actual article dedicated to it, the rest of this article would be an unintelligible angry mess.

So, without further ado, here are my burning non-big Big Ten questions.

Can Minnesota row a boat?

In what was a highly irritating situation, the Golden Gophers fired their head coach Tracy Claeys for essentially encouraging his players to stand up for due process. Not only did the school get away with it with little ruckus due to Minnesota not being a major player for some time, the administration managed to land the hottest coaching prospect in Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck.

There’s no way to say this without being slightly disparaging to Western Michigan players but you don’t find the same kind of players at Minnesota. Not necessarily talent-wise because Corey Davis was a beast but I’m talking mindset. There’s a different mindset when you’re playing in the MAC versus being on national television every weekend in the Big Ten. A cheesy saying like Fleck’s “Row the boat” might work at Western but will it in Minnesota?

In my mind, there are two ways this ends: either Fleck builds the Golden Gophers into a power program or he’s out of a job in three years.

Will Purdue ever get it turned around?

Making fun of the Purdue Boilermakers is something I enjoy immensely. If you read my columns regularly, you’ll notice that I usually get a dig in about them being terrible pretty much every time. It’s starting to lose the amusement factor and is becoming just sad.

Since head coach Darrell Hazell took over in 2013, the Boilermakers have 9 wins. That’s not a year, that’s a collective total. Purdue hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2000 and hasn’t had a 10-win season since the 70’s. That’s just brutal.

Purdue did hang tough in a couple games and showed some spunk last season so maybe that could be the start of something? As much as I like picking on the Boilermakers, I’d rather they stop getting ridiculed by the national media too.

Can Indiana get over the hump?

The Hoosiers have been probably one of the best four to six-win teams in the last six years. Look at the 2016 season for instance, Indiana beat the teams they should’ve beat but then went toe to toe with the big dogs. Only Ohio State and eventual Big Ten champions Penn State beat the Hoosiers by more than 10 points. Go back another year and the Hoosiers gave up a late lead to Iowa and took Michigan to double overtime. There are some good players at Indiana and the ones that keep getting drafted confirm that.

We’re going to get the answer to this question almost immediately. In what had to be scheduling blunder, Indiana gets Ohio State in their season opener at home. If Indiana can knock off the Buckeyes… watch out.

Will Rutgers be any less terrible?

I probably should’ve been making fun of Rutgers last season, not Purdue, but Rutgers is just so, so sad. Even their coach looks sad, I mean real sad, and I can’t even find the picture of him in the rain looking like he’s crying.

At one point, Rutgers lost by a combined total of 150-7 to Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan. It wasn’t even fun anymore, especially if you were a certain steakhouse in Ann Arbor. At a certain point even opposing fans would’ve been OK with giving up a field goal or something.

You’d think  there’d be really nowhere to go but up since the Scarlet Knights went 2-10 in 2016 but with a change of offensive coordinators and philosophies, there’s currently a 4-way battle for quarterback. Not like a “We really know who the starter is and just aren’t saying” type of battle but a legitimate “We don’t know” type battle.

The schedule doesn’t do Rutgers any favors either. They open against 2016 playoff team Washington and travel to Michigan, Penn State, and Nebraska. Guys… it’s not going to be pretty but I think they can get three wins.

I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to getting some answers. I’ve got a solid hunch about Rutgers and Purdue but watching Indiana and Minnesota should be interesting. The Gophers have a shot at seven or eight wins and so does Indiana. There’s just that tiniest of chances that the Big Ten could be a little less top-heavy this season.

E-mail Tim at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @tbach84.

Image courtesy Flickr via Creative Commons

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New Year’s Six Preview: Cotton Bowl

Forewarning: While I have zero affiliation with either team in this year’s Cotton Bowl Classic, I would be lying if I said I was unbiased. I grew up in Ohio in an Ohio State family. While I no longer root for the Buckeyes, some of my emotions and opinions about Michigan certain Big Ten football teams remain. While we always despised the “Team Up North” we also, to a degree, respected them. We did not, however, in any way shape or form, respect the Wisconsin Badgers and, especially their fan base. Also, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to see P.J. Fleck and the Western Michigan Broncos row the boat over any and every Power 5 opponent. That being said, I’m going to keep this as diplomatic and unbiased as I possibly can manage.

Whilst I was holding out for an in-state matchup between the two best Michigan teams (sorry MSU) in this year’s Cotton Bowl, I was pleased with the Wisconsin Badgers vs. Western Michigan Broncos draw. If I’m going to be honest, I believe that this game could actually be close. Granted, WMU needs to play at its top possible level, but I believe that the Broncos have a legitimate shot at beating Wisconsin. Zach Terrell has made very few mistakes this season, throwing only 3 interceptions. However, he did that with very little pressure, only being sacked 14 times over the 13-game season. Wisconsin, which probably has a top-10 defense, will definitely look to disrupt and hit Terrell early and often to force mistakes. The key for Terrell will be to suck it up, take the hits, and not change his progression whatsoever. If he does so, the Broncos should be able to dent the Badger defense.

Many people, myself included, will focus on the matchup between the Broncos offense and the Badgers defense. However, the other side of the football offers an interesting storyline. Coming into the Cotton Bowl, the Badgers have the 86th ranked offense, directly behind the Rice Owls. There is a chance that the Badgers could seriously struggle offensively, which could turn the game into either a Western Michigan blowout or a defensive struggle.

In the end, I see this game being a defensive struggle. While both offenses may put up a good chunk of points, the winner of the Cotton Bowl will be determined by which defense steps up in the fourth quarter. I think this game will stay tight, but the Wisconsin pressure will be too much late, and the Broncos will be unable (unfortunately) to score the winning touchdown at the end of the game.

 

Final Score: Wisconsin Badgers 31, Western Michigan Broncos 28

 

Email Cooper at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @uf_goetz.

Photo: Pixabay

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Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck Marks Changing of the Guard at MAC Media Days

Last Thursday, Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher took the podium at Ford Field to deliver his annual State of the MAC address, kicking off media day festivities and, more importantly, signaling that the long wait for 2016 #MACtion is drawing quickly to a close. In his remarks, Steinbrecher discussed the MAC’s reputation for “respecting the grind.” He discussed adjustments to challenge procedures. He voiced proposed restrictions on satellite camps. He even took the time to recite his favorite sections of A Tale of Two Cities. Sexy stuff.

The remainder of the day was dominated by coaches and their respective programs. Frank Solich gave us a glimpse into Ohio University’s improved front seven. Terry Bowden discussed building upon Akron’s program-record eight wins last season. Mike Jinks announced his plans to continue Bowling Green’s explosive success with the air raid offense. In short: standard, run-of-the-mill, coaching speak.

Then there was P.J. Fleck.

Nearly four years ago, the Western Michigan Broncos had just completed a disastrous, 4-8 campaign with a loss to Eastern Michigan, the Broncos’ worst finish since 2004. Head coach Bill Cubit took the resulting fall, his tenure in Kalamazoo ending after seven seasons, three bowl appearances, and – count ‘em – zero postseason victories. Still yet to claim a bowl victory or a MAC title in its history, the Broncos found themselves once again searching for a savior to resurrect a stagnant program.

Jesus Christ was resurrected at 33. P.J. Fleck was hired at 32. Jesus Christ is a pretty good recruiter. P.J. Fleck might just be better.

Fleck steered into the skid his first season at the helm, limping to a 1-11 season as the youngest coach in the FBS (he still is). But shortly thereafter, Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mentality propelled the program to back-to-back eight win seasons, back-to-back bowl appearances, and – finally – a bowl victory. Fleck’s marked improvements to the culture of Western Michigan even birthed a new language: Bronconese. While nuggets like Row the Boat and F.A.M.I.L.Y. might strike outsiders as a foreign language, recruits are clearly fluent in it. Fleck hauled in the MAC’s top recruiting classes in 2014, 2015, and 2016, in addition to what’s currently a sizable lead for the 2017 cycle.

Those recruits haven’t delivered a MAC title yet, but this season’s preseason media poll indicates those fortunes may be changing. Despite the fact Northern Illinois has claimed an FBS record seven straight division titles, the Broncos are the media’s overwhelming favorite to take the conference crown, signaling not only a changing of the guard among MAC elite, but among college football at large.

A 35-year-old coach in his fourth season is taking the Group of 5 by storm. And can we really be surprised?

Certainly Fleck isn’t the first coaching phenom to rise from a mid-major school, but he’s certainly a far cry you’re your average MAC coach. College football, more commercialized than ever, has assumed a climate where the P.J. Fleck’s of the country can thrive even in mediocre programs and mediocre conferences. Look towards Michigan’s recent uniform reveal, following a nearly $200 million deal with Nike. Look towards college football’s loosened restrictions on Twitter as a recruiting tool, a welcomed development for a man this skilled in the art of Twitter.

Western Michigan might not have Fleck for long, but the overall trend is going nowhere. I’m a college kid myself, and hearing Fleck’s narrative in articles and interviews makes a nerd like me want to run through walls. Young coaches like P.J. Fleck, Tom Herman, Dabo Swinney, and Kirby Smart represent a new wave of college coaches in a new era of college football. These guys aren’t sullen and curmudgeonly like certain high-profile coaches, they’re brand-oriented, message-driven inspiratory uniquely tooled to address millennials as near-millennials themselves. It’s happening in the MAC, and it’s happening countrywide.

Jon Steinbrecher, Frank Solich, Terry Bowden, and other seasoned figures across the college football landscape will continue the same old song and dance, and that’s fine. But don’t be mistaken, P.J. Fleck is the future of college football. It’s reflected in recruiting rankings, on the field, and in the locker room. The question isn’t whether or not P.J. Fleck will stick, the question is whether other programs will take notice, opting to abandon traditional, X’s and O’s coaching candidates, to find a media-savvy brand builder fit to revive a program in the reality of 21st Century college football.

So when a Power 5 school looks to fill a coaching vacancy this winter, they’ll survey a myriad of candidates. Those candidates will come with thick resumes, foolproof pro-style offenses, and run-of-the-mill coaching speak.

And then there’ll be P.J. Fleck.

E-mail Cole at [email protected] or follow him in Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

Photo courtesy of larrysphatpage – Flickr

Player Spotlight: WMU's Jarvion Franklin

Jarvion Franklin’s mindset while running the football is to constantly keep his feet pumping and moving forward until the whistle blows, earning every inch the defense allows him.  I’d say young Jarvion has been true to himself thus far “keeping his feet moving” to the tone of an eye popping 542 rushing yards and 9 TD’s through just 3 games.  We know coach P.J. Fleck has brought in a highly-touted, highly-talented group of new recruits that includes Franklin, it was just a matter of letting the dust settle and allowing the best athletes to emerge on top.  Franklin has done just that quickly distancing himself from the rest of coach Fleck’s impressive recruit class and helping the Broncos to a 2-1 start to the 2014 campaign.
jarvion franklin bio picJarvion Franklin is 6’0″ even and a solid 220lbs. of speed and muscle.  Hailing from Tinley Park, ILL, Franklin attended Andrew High School where he played both Varsity football and basketball.  As a senior Jarvion racked up 1265 rush yards on 179 carries (just over 7 yards per carry not to shabby!) and 15 TD’s earning him 1st-Team All-Conference and an invite to play in the U.S. Army All-American game.  As one of Coach Flecks 3-star recruits, Jarvion has already received the bulk of the rushing duties and the true freshman has rewarded Coach Fleck and Bronco fans sooner than anyone could have imagined.
Through WMU’s first 3 games, Franklin has amassed 542 rush yards on 82 attempts, 5 catches for another 40 yards, while getting to the promised land 9 times.  That averages out to approx. 6.6 yards per carry, 180.6 rushing yards per game, and 3 TD’s per game.  Those are video game numbers folks!  To give some perspective on this the other contributing Bronco RB’s in 2014 have added an additional 291 rush yards on 48 carries (a 6.06 YPC average) and 2 more TD’s bringing the season total thus far to 833 rushing yards on 130 attempts and 11 TD’s.  Now, in 2013 WMU’s TOTALS for the season were 1394 rush yards on 389 attempts and just 10 TD’s.  Thats a meager 3.58 yards per carry and just 116 rush yards a game.  Those numbers landed WMU 12th of 13 schools in rushing in the MAC and clearly wasn’t efficient enough to help them win games.  N. Illinois dominated the MAC in 2013 rumbling for a school and MAC record 4161 rush yards and 39 TD’s!  Even at the pace WMU’s currently on, averaging 277.6 rush yards per game, they’d still only muster approx. 3400 rush yards total, however WMU would challenge the Huskies TD totals as they score 3.6 rushing TD’s per game bringing the season to total to about 43 scores.  Keep in mind of course that conference play will be tougher competition more often than not so maintaining their current numbers may prove to be easier said than done albeit there are several games the Broncos stand to go over their averages i.e. Miami of Ohio and Eastern Michigan. Teams will also start to game-plan their defense around stopping Franklin and the Bronco run game and you can assume Franklin will be the focus of many opposing teams practices this season.
Bronco fans were well aware of the potential and possibilities attached to Coach Fleck’s impressive recruiting class, however I don’t think anyone could predict that any one recruit would find so much immediate success and play such a large role so early on.  It’s an exciting time for Bronco fans after last years abysmal 1-11 finish, WMU has already won more games this year and has looked solid doing it.  Franklin’s early dominance has earned him the MAC West Offensive Player of the Week award twice already! (weeks 1 and 3 respectively)  While another Fleck recruit, Cleveland Smith, earned himself the MAC Defensive Player of the Week award week 2 giving the Bronco’s a representative each week thus far.  Franklin is also the 1st Bronco RB since Robert Sanford in 1997 to have 3-straight 100-yards rushing and 3 TD games and could become the 1st Bronco ever to make it 4-straight.  That might be a tough task however, as WMU travels to Virginia Tech this week for their final non-conference match-up of 2014.  VA-Tech is from the bigger, stronger, faster ACC and are coming off back-to-back home losses and obviously will be looking to get back on track before entering into a tough conference schedule.  It should be an exciting, well-played game between two up and coming teams while a win for WMU would go down as one of the biggest in school history and give the Bronco’s some serious momentum entering MAC play.  Unfortunately this writer thinks the Bronco’s will come up just short, losing to the Hokies 37-31 in a heartbreaker.  I do feel that Franklin will have another solid performance and could get his 4th-straight 100 yard game and maybe even find pay dirt 3 times again but it still won’t be enough to get a Bronco victory.  For WMU fans sake I hope the Broncos prove me wrong!  You can catch all the action on ESPN 3 @ 12:30 p.m. ET this Saturday and then be sure to read my article next week to keep up on all that is MAC from out here in MAC land!

WMU: Breaking Down the Defense

Defense?  Are you there?  Has anyone seen the defense?  The defense is missing!…  Well, that’s not completely fair the Bronco secondary did rank 4th in the nation while allowing just 169.2 yards per game through the air albeit if teams were too preoccupied running the ball down their throats.  Allowing a back-breaking 250 rushing yards per game in 2013, WMU’s line left alot of gaping questions (prayers) to be answered.  Head coach P.J. Fleck delivered the goods as you read last week for the offense but despite indeed filling some glaring holes the recruiting on defense isn’t nearly as glamorous as the offense.  Let’s hope a chance of scheme and some added bulk will be enough to “protect the boat” in 2014.
Coach Fleck doesn’t return a huge amount of experience altogether but will benfit from a strong secondary that returns 6 of 7 starters.  Unfortunately, his defensive line and linebacker crews weren’t so lucky returning just 4 of the 10 contributing D-lineman and zero of the linebackers.  The line does receive a boost as redshirt freshman Khairi Bailey and Andre Turner return at defensive end.  Bailey, 6’3″/251lbs., was a 3-star recruit in 2013.  Also returning for the D-line, is junior Jarell McKinney who played in all 12 games of 2013 making 30.5 tackles (4.3% teams total).  Sophomores David Curle and Keion Adams also return and will look for playing time after bulking up over the offseason.   The secondary, in 2014 anyways, is the deepest, most experienced unit on WMU’s football team.  With 6 0f 7 starters returning and 5 of those being seniors, coach Fleck should be able to focus his attention on stopping the opponents run game.  Senior FS, defensive leader, and football stud Justin Currie leads the Bronco secondary racking up 86.5 tackles in 2013 a whopping 12.3%  of the teams total tackles.  Currie started all 12 games while also contributing a sack, 3 INT’s, and 2 forced fumbles.  Patroling Currie’s left and right sides are fellow defensive studs, senior, and fellow defensive leader CB Donald Celiscar and junior CB Ronald Zamort.  Celiscar also started all 12 games while racking up 47 tackles, 3 INT’s, 1 forced fumble, and 9 passes defended (PBU).  His 47 tackles came to be 6.7% of the teams total tackles.  Zamort was equally impressive and an absolute nuisance to opposing receivers starting all 12 games while collecting 44.5 tackles and an incredible 18 passes defended earning him the 4th best mark in the nation.  With any relevant pass rush and a handle on the run game WMU’s secondary is poised to be a game changer.  The issue remains the defense “inside the box” and hopefully Fleck’s brought in enough “beef” to be sufficient and effective.
Defense The defensive recruiting class may not be as deep nor as glamorous as the offense, but it served its purpose and we all hope will be much improved as a unit in 2014.  We know the secondary will be solid so it’s a good thing that Fleck’s defensive pearl plays defensive end.  Nathan Braster hails from Fort Wayne, IN and at 6’5″/253lbs. plans to feast on MAC QB’s and RB’s.  Rated the 16th best recruit in IN., Braster possesses a scary size/speed combination with long arms and a capability for advanced mobility.  The 3-star recruit will likely see extensive playing time from day 1 and lets hope helps bring the heat!  Also looking for some P.T. at defensive end will be Jacari Faulkner, a 2-star recruit out of Detroit, MI.  Bolstering the interior D-line will be defensive tackle Kenny Finley, 6’4″/255lbs. a 3-star recruit from Muskegon, MI.  Possibly the smartest move (and biggest break) comes in 5th year senior transfer, nose guard Richard Ash.  Ash comes from Big10 powerhouse Michigan and at 6’3″/314lbs. brings immediate respect and experience to a young, depleted D-line.  Also adding experience are Fleck’s two junior college (JUCO) transfers at LB, Jason Sylva and JaKevin Jackson.  Both entering their junior seasons, Sylva led his JUCO team in tackles and has a knack for making the big hits.  Jackson comes in as the 73rd best recruit in the nation and is athletic and rangy, covering the field from sideline to sideline.  Freshman OLB Delshawn Phillips and CB Antione Stone round out the defensive recruits.  Phillips has talent and will likely find a niche while stone has size, speed, the physicality to play safety or CB as well as return kicks.  Playing secondary, Stone will probably see limited time but will benefit greatly learning from and watching such an experienced unit and with 5 seniors stands to see major P.T. in 2015.  As I said, not a lot of flash, but there’s enough talent at the right positions to make the defense considerably better if not downright stingy!
Defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham will combine his 30 years of experience with Coach Fleck to attempt to bring together a solid defensive unit in 2014.  Changing the scheme from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3, the clear focus is on shutting down the run game.  Allowing over 3000 yards via the ground in 2013 (6th worst of 123 FBS schools) the Bronco’s hope an extra down lineman and some much needed bulk will slow the run game and open up turnover opportunities in the secondary.  Amassing a grand total of 7 sacks, the lowest amount in the nation, and the only team to not reach double digits (Navy, N. Mexico St, and UMass finished with 11), the problem was fairly obvious.  Fleck’s shiny new offense may score enough points that the defense will be an afterthought but it’s good to know there’s potential for a solid showing.  If Fleck and his staff can somehow bring these players together, and get the best out of each one, he just might “Row His Boat” in 2014.  There’s only room for improvement on this side of the ball, and it’s going to be interesting and exciting to watch how it all plays out.  Stay tuned as next week I’ll break down the schedule and give my predictions on the Bronco’s upcoming season.  Until next time from out here in MAC land…

The P.J. Fleck Experiment

The P.J. Fleck Experiment

            1-11?  Not quite what Western Michigan University administrators had in mind when they signed P.J. Fleck to the head coaching job in the winter of 2013.  In fact, my money says behind closed doors there were demands for his head (and job) despite his 5-year, $392,000 contract.  This happens to be a cool $17K more than previous Coach Bill Cubit made despite Coach Cubit having a successful tenure at Western Michigan, including the biggest single-season turnaround in MAC history turning a 1-10 record in 2004, into a 7-4 record in 2005 and earning Cubit MAC coach of the year honors.  Coach Cubit also led WMU to its first bowl appearance in nearly 20 years in 2006 (1988 previous bowl appearance) which was 1 of 3 bowl appearances under Cubits watch.  Coach Cubit amassed a 51-47 career record at WMU including landmark victories over Iowa, Virginia, Illinois, and University of Connecticut.  Cubit has since moved on to take the Offensive Coordinator and QB coaching job with the University of Illinois. Those are some big shoes to fill for the 33-year old first-time head coach from Maple Park, Illinois.  Moving his wife, son, and daughter from his hometown, where he was the Offensive Coordinator at his alma mater Northern Illinois, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, Fleck signed the largest contract in Western Michigan football history.  Fleck becomes the 15th head coach in the 108 year history of WMU football although the hiring left many shaking their heads at the lofty numbers offered to a first-timer with minimal experience.  Playing WR for 4-years at N. Illinois followed by a short NFL stint with the S.F. 49ers in 2004-2005, Fleck moved on to be a graduate’s assistant at Ohio St. under head coach Jim Tressel.  From their Fleck returned home to his alma mater as the WR’s coach from 2007-2009 under head coach’s Joe Novak and Jerry Kill respectively followed by a 2-year run under now NFL coach Greg Schiano as Rutgers WR’s coach.  In a brutal move that had to leave a bitter taste in a lot of mouths Fleck accepted the Offensive Coordinator position again with his alma mater in 2012 because he quote “bleeds for NIU” and “doesn’t belong anywhere else” only to promptly bail the very next day to reunite with Greg Schiano this time with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  I can understand the great opportunity the NFL offers but the circumstances and way it all played out leave a smudge in my book of Fleck. My feeling, and that of many college football analysts, is head coach’s have a 3-year window to produce.  It takes 3-years to sufficiently instill an offensive and defensive game plan and to get your recruiting class established.  First year failure (even epic 1-11 failure) is to be somewhat expected, unless in the rare case the previous coach retired and handed you a contender, and not judged as harshly.  The key is showing marked improvement year 2 and by year 3 hypothetically you’ve molded your squad into a fine tuned football machine ready to win championships (or at least finish over.500).  Obviously repeated losing seasons and a lack of progression may result in an early termination of a contract while mediocrity may earn you an extra year, one more go at it, but that’s all she wrote.  Best of luck, hope you sign with our rivals next season!
pj fleck 2Fleck wasted no time striving towards getting his own recruiting class involved as his first action as head coach was to rescind all WMU’s football scholarships already offered saying: “I know if it was me I’d be ticked”, “but I also know if it was me I would have showed up at the office of the head football coach telling him I was dying to still be there”.  Kind of a harsh move albeit rather bold and possibly highly effective.  Those players may or may not have found another school to play for but Fleck’s housecleaning opened up a lot of new positions and recruiting ability for his staff.  Now despite the gloomy outlook given of Mr. Fleck so far, there’s actually a lot to excited about in 2014 for Bronco fans. I know, 1-11, worst record in 10 years, 0-7 in the MAC, I get it… not good!  To his defense, a flood of injuries, youth of players, and a general inexperience caused big problems in the early part of the season while the Broncos got stronger and showed signs of possibility and improvement late in the year with a thrilling 31-30 victory of UMASS and several close conference match-ups.  Sports Illustrated named Fleck “Best New Hire of 2013” and year 2 may just prove them right. Again, having a wide open recruiting board, Fleck and his staff have succeeded in recruiting a highly touted player class for 2014.  Analysts say it’s the best WMU recruiting class since 2000, while Rivals.com ranks WMU as “Highest Mid-Major Recruiting Class”.  247sports.com ranks them 36th nationally which is the highest online ranking the Broncos received.  Many consider it to be the best recruiting class in WMU history and statistically, it is.  It’s a clear #1 class in non-BCS schools.  Fleck saw 2 N. Illinois WR’s go to the NFL and will have 3 returning players receiving All-Conference honors including last week’s player spotlight Corey Davis, MAC Freshman of the Year, Travonte Boles, 3rd Team at Defensive Lineman, and Donald Celiscar also 3rd Team at Defensive Back.  Being the first MAC school ever to achieve a Top 60 college recruiting rank ever reaching 57th and adding 14 more 3-star recruits, more than twice as many as any other MAC school, has Fleck looking like a genius and poised for a dramatic turnaround in Coach Cubit fashion or possibly better. Despite being picked to finish 5th in the MAC’s West division in the preseason polls, I think a challenge for the division title isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.  Clearly some player grooming and an understanding of the game plan will take some time but with enough talented athletes on the field, a lot of positive things can happen.  I’ll wait until after my team review articles to make a season record prediction but it seems impossible for Fleck to flop again.  For now we have to wait to see if P.J. Fleck can “Row his Boat” full of shiny new recruits to the promised land and I know Bronco fans would love nothing more that to see Fleck beat his alma mater for a MAC championship on national television.  Stay tuned for more on the Western Michigan University Broncos from out here in MAC land.