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1. Present vs. Future, Part 1
In terms of tangible results, P.J. Fleck had just about the worst year imaginable in his first season in charge at Western Michigan.
His Broncos -- one of the most consistent teams in a parity-loaded conferences until a slip to 4-8 in 2012 -- tanked. They not only lost 11 games in a season for the first time in their FBS history, and they not only ranked 118th in the overall F/+ rankings, but their one win wasn't any more affirming than any of their losses. They beat lowly UMass by a single point, 31-30, securing the win only when a late two-point conversion attempt by the Minutemen failed. They lost by four points to Nicholls State, which ranked a cool 195th in the Sagarin rankings, just seven spots ahead of the Ivy League's Cornell. Hell, WMU itself ranked 192nd, below Holy Cross, St. Francis (PA), Marist, and a whole lot of other teams that weren't playing in a bowl as recently as 2011 (as WMU did).
Other than the encouraging play of some thrown-into-the-deep-end freshmen -- receiver Corey Davis, quarterback Zach Terrell, tackle Taylor Moton -- there was almost nothing encouraging on the field. Hell, he even got sued for discrimination off the field.
When you're the new head coach at a program that seems to be fading, your approach goes in one of two ways. Either you bring in JUCOs and transfers and try to bail all of the water out of a sinking ship ... or you just let the ship sink and build a better one. Fleck chose the latter route.
2. Present vs. Future, Part 2
Only 23 FBS schools signed more three-star recruits (according to Rivals.com) than Western Michigan did on Signing Day in February.
Granted, that doesn't speak to the schools that signed four-star recruits, and granted, WMU didn't exactly sign a top-25 class. But that's a pretty powerful tidbit. Here's another one: WMU inked 14 Rivals three-stars, and the other five teams in its (loaded) West division signed nine. There were six three-stars on the 2014 roster; now there are 20.
This was the MAC version of Ole Miss' 2013 signing class, one that suddenly, drastically upgrades the level of a program's potential. It was quite possibly the best signing class in conference history. It's balanced, too, featuring three-star freshmen at quarterback, running back (two), receiver (three), tight end, offensive line (two), defensive end, defensive tackle (two), linebacker, and defensive back. It could very well play a serious role in WMU's program turnaround ...
... in another year or two. And that's only if Fleck and his charismatic staff can coach as well as they sell. There wasn't much indication of that last year, nor was there much opportunity.
As it stands, there will be freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores littering the depth chart in just about every unit in 2014, and this roster was stripped so bare a year ago that it's hard to imagine it improving too much in such a short amount of time. The future is bright, but one should expect the present to weigh WMU down a little bit longer.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 1-11 | Adj. Record: 0-12 | Final F/+ Rk: 117|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|30-Aug||at Michigan State||6||13-26||L||13.8 - 16.8||L|
|7-Sep||Nicholls State||N/A||23-27||L||20.9 - 61.9||L|
|14-Sep||at Northwestern||59||17-38||L||17.6 - 38.4||L|
|21-Sep||at Iowa||29||3-59||L||16.9 - 35.5||L|
|28-Sep||Kent State||106||14-32||L||22.3 - 35.7||L||-19.4|
|5-Oct||at Toledo||62||20-47||L||19.9 - 34.1||L||-21.6|
|12-Oct||Buffalo||80||0-33||L||11.2 - 31.9||L||-17.6|
|19-Oct||Ball State||57||17-38||L||25.0 - 25.6||L||-13.5|
|26-Oct||at Massachusetts||118||31-30||W||22.7 - 35.2||L||-12.3|
|9-Nov||at Eastern Michigan||124||32-35||L||21.3 - 38.5||L||-13.1|
|16-Nov||Central Michigan||111||22-27||L||19.2 - 30.3||L||-12.4|
|26-Nov||at Northern Illinois||60||14-33||L||21.0 - 26.4||L||-9.4|
|Points Per Game||17.2||118||35.4||105|
|Adj. Points Per Game||19.3||120||34.2||108|
3. It got better, I guess
MAC teams like Kent State and Central Michigan perfected the art of playing awful football in September, then improving. Technically WMU did the same, though improvement still meant playing worse than a touchdown below average.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): Opponent 36.3, WMU 17.5 (minus-18.8)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 5 games): Opponent 31.2, WMU 21.8 (minus-9.4)
This team just had no chance. It had a freshman at quarterback, a freshman at No. 1 receiver, freshmen and sophomores on the offensive line, and a defense that was in no way ready to become the anchor it needed to be. Even special teams was a liability.
Again, recruiting should ensure that things improve, perhaps significantly, at some point. But it might not happen in 2014.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||36.0%||118||Succ. Rt. +||78.6||119|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||32.8||108||Def. FP+||94.4||111|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.4||114||Redzone S&P+||82.7||112|
|Q1 Rk||123||1st Down Rk||96|
|Q2 Rk||108||2nd Down Rk||122|
|Q3 Rk||114||3rd Down Rk||121|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Zach Terrell||6'1, 210||So.||2 stars (5.3)||133||251||1602||8||8||53.0%||17||6.3%||5.5|
|Tyler Van Tubbergen||82||183||930||4||10||44.8%||5||2.7%||4.7|
|Cameron Thomas||6'2, 179||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Chance Stewart||6'5, 220||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
4. A three-way battle
Like MAC mates CMU and Kent State, WMU went with a freshman at quarterback for most of the season. It wasn't by design, however. Veteran Tyler Van Tubbergen began the season as the starter but suffered a shoulder injury in Game 6. His play had left something to be desired (to put it kindly), however, so even when he healed up a bit, his replacement, Zach Terrell, held onto the No. 1 spot.
Terrell wasn't amazing (again, to put it kindly). But the simple fact that he out-performed a senior was encouraging. He showed decent mobility, and he found a nice rapport with MAC freshman of the year Corey Davis, who caught 33 passes for 461 yards and four scores in Terrell's first four starts. If he's WMU's starter for the next three years, he will likely turn into a pretty solid player. But he has his work cut out for him. First, redshirt freshman Cameron Thomas is only a year behind; Thomas was a more well-touted recruit who also appears to mix mobility with a strong arm.
Of course, Thomas isn't the backup creating the most buzz. Incoming freshman Chance Stewart was once a four-star Wisconsin commit but backed off when Bret Bielema went to Arkansas. He committed to WMU 10 months before Signing Day and became the crown jewel (well, one of a few) of Fleck's recruiting class. As a high school senior, he completed only 52 percent of his passes for an out-manned team in nearby Sturgis, and his recruiting ranking did suffer a bit. But he's got physical tools and maturity, and if he's ready from Day 1, he could quite likely start from Day 1.
|Zach Terrell||QB||6'1, 210||So.||2 stars (5.3)||25||118||0||4.7||4.5||36.0%|
|Tyler Van Tubbergen||QB||17||74||0||4.4||2.6||47.1%|
|Austin Guido||RB||5'11, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Fabian Johnson||RB||5'7, 192||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Jarvion Franklin||RB||6'0, 220||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jamauri Bogan||RB||5'8, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Leo Ekwoge||RB||5'11, 205||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Corey Davis||WR-X||6'2, 205||So.||2 stars (5.3)||135||67||941||49.6%||33.6%||51.2%||7.0||8||6.6||102.5|
|Timmy Keith||WR-Z||6'0, 203||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||50||20||218||40.0%||12.4%||58.3%||4.4||-99||4.5||23.8|
|Kendrick Roberts||WR-F||6'3, 203||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||45||23||354||51.1%||11.2%||62.2%||7.9||39||7.7||38.6|
|Daniel Braverman (2012)||WR||5'10, 164||So.||3 stars (5.5)||32||18||135||56.3%||6.6%||59.4%||4.2||N/A||4.2||15.8|
|Eric Boyden||TE||6'4, 243||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||26||19||179||73.1%||6.5%||88.9%||6.9||-37||9.0||19.5|
|Mario Rodriguez||FB||6'3, 265||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||10||6||82||60.0%||2.5%||66.7%||8.2||7||3.3||8.9|
|Alec Moulton||WR||6'1, 189||So.||NR||8||7||61||87.5%||2.0%||37.5%||7.6||-12||8.0||6.6|
|Michael Henry||WR||5'10, 172||So.||2 stars (5.4)||3||1||2||33.3%||0.7%||N/A||0.7||-16||0.0||0.2|
|Justin Ferguson (Notre Dame)||WR||6'2, 185||So.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Lonnie Johnson||WR||6'3, 184||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Javonte Seabury||WR||5'9, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Jay Harris||WR||5'11, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Lucas Bezerra||TE||6'4, 242||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
5. Ready, freshmen?
For the second straight season, a WMU receiver was the MAC's freshman of the year. Corey Davis did the deed in 2013 after Jaime Wilson did it the year before; he was anything but efficient (that 50 percent catch rate limits your upside), but he still survived as almost the only interesting weapon in an offense that wanted to pass a lot. He returns, though Wilson does not -- Wilson missed last season with injury, then transferred to be closer to his Florida home. So for the skill-position talent, that leaves WMU with Davis and ... ?
Last year's Nos. 2 and 3 receivers, Timmy Keith and Kendrick Roberts, are both former three-star recruits and theoretically have some decent upside. Roberts showed some big-play ability, at least. But it says something that Davis was targeted 40 more times than the two of them combined. Meanwhile, the running back position has been decimated by graduation -- the top three backs were all seniors. Terrell's 25 non-sack carries put him 25 ahead of anything any returning running back managed last year.
So yeah, playing time is available, and that was probably a pretty strong selling point for the seven three- or high-two-star skill-position freshmen entering the fray this fall. If Chance Stewart wasn't the star of the recruiting class, receivers Lonnie Johnson and Javonte Seabury were. They'll each have a chance to star immediately, and they're not the only ones.
|Willie Beavers||LT||6'4, 309||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||14|
|James Kristof||LG||6'3, 296||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||14|
|Jon Hoffing||C||6'4, 285||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||13|
|Taylor Moton||RT||6'5, 291||So.||2 stars (5.2)||12|
|Jackson Day||RG||6'3, 279||So.||2 stars (5.4)||2|
|John Jackson||LG||6'2, 319||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Josh Bass||OL||6'4, 271||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Chukwuma Okorafor||OL||6'5, 275||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Curtis Doyle||OL||6'5, 304||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
6. The line survived (sort of)
By process of elimination, if nothing else, the offensive line might have been the strongest unit of the WMU offense. The Broncos had one receiver, and none of the senior running backs showed much (if any) explosiveness, so it was either Terrell or the line.
No, neither was really a strength of any sort. Still, the line began the season with five career starts and started a freshman and two sophomores most of the way, and it still produced decent sack rates (with help from Van Tubbergen's quick passing). And while the run stats weren't good, the line blocking stats were still better than the running backs' explosion stats.
In theory, with more experience overall -- 50 of last year's 60 starts return -- this line should expect to improve. Keep the quarterback upright, and give your young backs a crease every now and then, and the offensive production should grow at least a bit. And hey, if one of your three-star freshmen is ready to jump into the rotation from the start, that's even better.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||46.9%||102||Succ. Rt. +||85.7||109|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||27.7||105||Off. FP+||95.5||101|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.5||94||Redzone S&P+||79.2||120|
|Q1 Rk||115||1st Down Rk||108|
|Q2 Rk||107||2nd Down Rk||83|
|Q3 Rk||103||3rd Down Rk||109|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jarrell McKinney||DE||6'4, 216||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||30.5||4.3%||2.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cleveland Smith||DT||6'1, 233||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||9||15.0||2.1%||5.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Keion Adams||DE||6'3, 230||So.||NR||10||14.5||2.1%||2.5||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Jamar Simpkins||NG||6'2, 277||So.||2 stars (5.4)||7||13.0||1.8%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Khairi Bailey||DE||6'3, 251||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Andre Turner||DE||6'3, 218||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Ken Finley||DT||6'3, 283||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Nick Matich||DT||6'2, 300||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Nathan Braster||DE||6'5, 252||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Austin Lewis||MIKE||6'3, 215||So.||2 stars (5.3)||9||27.0||3.8%||2.0||0.0||0||1||1||0|
|Devon Brant (2012)||MIKE||5'10, 230||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||24.0||3.4%||2.5||0.0||0||2||0||0|
|Trevor Ishmael||SAM||6'1, 197||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||9||20.0||2.8%||2.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Edward Rolle||WILL||6'2, 187||So.||2 stars (5.4)||5||4.0||0.6%||1.0||1.0||0||0||1||1|
|Caleb Bailey||LB||5'11, 221||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jason Sylva||LB||6'3, 245||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|JaKevin Jackson||LB||6'3, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Robert Spillane||LB||6'2, 225||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
7. Ready, freshmen?
We'll start with the bad news: only four of WMU's 10 contributing defensive linemen return, and all three starting linebackers are gone. Even with a terrible recruiting class, the WMU front seven was destined to be really thin and inexperienced in 2014.
The good news: younger doesn't automatically mean worse. The bar is pretty low in that regard.
WMU had no pass rush to speak of in 2013; the leading sack man was nose guard Travonte Boles. He had 1.5. WMU recorded a sack once for every 71 pass attempts on standard downs and once for every 33 on passing downs. That almost literally cannot get worse. Meanwhile, the line showed decent stiffness in short-yardage situations and sliced into the backfield on occasion against the run but still ranked only 113th in Adj. Line Yards. That could technically get worse, but barely.
As with the offensive skill positions, playing time was a major sell for freshmen like tackle Ken Finley and linebacker Robert Spillane. WMU redshirted a couple of three-star freshmen up front as well, so the depth of interesting young talent is pretty solid. But it's all really, really young. This could become something pretty exciting in about 2016, but there will be epic growing pains in 2014.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Justin Currie||FS||6'2, 204||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||86.5||12.3%||7||1||3||3||2||0|
|Donald Celiscar||CB||5'11, 183||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||47.0||6.7%||1.5||0||3||9||1||0|
|Ronald Zamort||CB||5'10, 157||Jr.||NR||12||44.5||6.3%||0||0||0||18||0||1|
|Rontavious Atkins||SS||6'0, 194||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||3||13.5||1.9%||2.5||0||0||0||2||0|
|Garrett Smith||CB||5'9, 170||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||8||11.5||1.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jon Henry||SS||5'11, 188||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||8||11.0||1.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Justin Motley||CB||5'11, 180||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Darius Phillips||CB||5'10, 179||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Logan Oce||CB||5'9, 155||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Deontae Brown||DB||6'1, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Antione Stone||DB||5'11, 190||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
8. The secondary is legitimately strong
Despite an almost non-existent pass rush, WMU ranked a semi-respectable 89th in Passing S&P+. The Broncos limited the damage of big plays, and their efficiency numbers weren't bad, all things considered. That six of the top seven in the secondary return is exciting, and if WMU can figure out how to get any pressure on the quarterback whatsoever, the Broncos' pass rankings could pretty easily rise to 60th or so.
Corners Ronald Zamort and Donald Celiscar combined for three interceptions and an outstanding 27 pass break-ups despite the fact that WMU opponents didn't really feel the need to pass very often. Zamort was fourth in the country with his 18 passes defensed. And Justin Currie has proven himself as a serious play-maker, both near the line of scrimmage and far away. He damn near led the team in both tackles for loss and interceptions.
The sad part, really, is that five of the six major returnees are seniors. The rest of the team probably isn't going to be ready to roll until at least 2015, and at that point the secondary will be starting over.
|J. Schroeder||6'0, 205||Jr.||77||39.7||6||21||17||49.4%|
|Andrew Haldeman||5'10, 168||Jr.||28||50.0||2||2||7.1%|
|Brett Scanlon||6'0, 205||So.||20||58.5||2||0||10.0%|
|Andrew Haldeman||5'10, 168||Jr.||20-20||13-16||81.3%||3-4||75.0%|
|Donald Celiscar||KR||5'11, 183||Sr.||13||21.8||0|
|Special Teams F/+||120|
|Field Goal Efficiency||75|
|Punt Return Efficiency||75|
|Kick Return Efficiency||109|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||14|
When your offense and defense stink, you can still make up ground here or there with decent special teams. WMU's special teams were in no way decent.
One has to figure the return game could get a boost with the infusion of so many exciting freshman running backs and receivers, but the return game wasn't really the problem ... at least it wasn't the biggest problem. No, that would be kick coverage, which was a horror show. WMU ranked 121st in kickoff efficiency and 122nd in punt efficiency. The Broncos were destined to be a bad field position team simply because of the quality of the offense and defense. Special teams made them even worse.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|27-Sep||at Virginia Tech||22|
|11-Oct||at Ball State||81|
|18-Oct||at Bowling Green||60|
|1-Nov||at Miami (Ohio)||121|
|22-Nov||at Central Michigan||106|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-11.9% (93)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||80|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-7 / -1.2|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (8, 5)|
10. The schedule is more forgiving ... if that matters
P.J. Fleck looks like Jurgen Klinsmann and recruits like Hugh Freeze. He has put together an exciting, charismatic, comically enthusiastic staff, and he reaped the rewards with an incredible recruiting class.
Now he has to coach them. Recruiting wasn't much of a problem for Mike Locksley at New Mexico -- he signed 14 three- or four-star players in his 2010-11 recruiting classes in a much less football-fertile area of the country -- but his Lobos were an outright disaster on the field. One bad season on the field certainly doesn't prove that Fleck is Locksley incarnate, but it doesn't prove that he's not, either. There is reason to be excited about WMU's future, but recruiting is only Part 1 of program building.
The season begins and ends with some potential wins. WMU's first three opponents are all projected 104th or worse, as are four of its final five. If the new blood results in an immediate transfusion of athleticism and production, WMU could easily reach four to six wins.
But the odds of that coming together immediately are small. Most of WMU's three-star freshmen will be either redshirting or simply trying not to drown, and even if the class ends up remarkably successful, only some of that success will matter in 2014. Set the bar at three wins and let the Broncos surprise you.