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How P.J. Fleck’s actual football coaching works

You might know the catch phrases, but what do you know about his creativity as a leader and strategist?

Western Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Western Michigan’s #RowTheBoat has become a popular college football slogan this year. When the Broncos take the field, college football junkies are delighted.

The mantra comes from WMU’s 35-year-old head coach, P.J. Fleck, whose Broncos are 11-0 and leading the race to represent the Group of 5 in the Cotton Bowl (they’re behind Boise State in the rankings, but Boise needs conference standings help to even be eligible). Fleck’s put a process into place in Kalamazoo, and it’s worked.

Western Michigan plays in the MAC West, which is a little stronger than you might guess. Among the Broncos’ achievements this year: victories over Big Ten programs Northwestern and Illinois, as well as wins over MAC teams like Eastern Michigan, which beat MWC division leader Wyoming, and Central Michigan, which defeated Oklahoma State in a referee-aided finish.

Pretty impressive for a young coach who went 1-11 in his first year on the job just four seasons ago, then led WMU in 2015 to its first-ever bowl win. Fleck has Western Michigan in stellar position to win a competitive MAC.

Consequently, Fleck has the attention of athletic directors and fans around the country, with ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday visiting a MAC campus for the first time since a 2003 game at Bowling Green in which Fleck caught passes for NIU.

Fleck’s Broncos have basically improved across the board every single year.

Before he was at Western Michigan, he bounced around and worked with coaches like Jim Tressel, Jerry Kill, and Greg Schiano. Fleck followed Schiano from Rutgers to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he coached receivers for a year before taking over at Western Michigan.

At the time, it was a surprising hire of a coach with minimal experience, but a good reputation as a recruiter and offensive mind.

Here’s Fleck’s (slightly outdated) track record at WMU, including Bill Connelly’s S&P+ team quality rating and 247Sports Composite recruiting ranking, with MAC ranking in parentheses:

The improvement is especially stark on offense, where Fleck’s expertise lies, and they’ve been recruiting laps around their conference.

The recruiting part is a huge key to Fleck’s appeal as a modern head coach.

He understands the importance of talent acquisition, and he does everything he can to connect with young athletes, beyond just scouting and recruiting. He’s active on social media, he’s made his unorthodox lexicon into a program language, and his metaphor-heavy pregame speeches are becoming the stuff of online legend:

If modern athletes are less likely to go for the authoritarian tactics of yesteryear, Fleck’s style is primed to be the next big thing in rallying and inspiring athletes.

Of 22 current WMU starters, 10 come from Michigan, 10 come from nearby Big Ten states, and only two come from traditional hotbeds. Fleck hasn’t been recruiting nationally, instead zeroing in on talent within Western Michigan’s natural recruiting base.

Many of WMU’s key players have been Fleck developmental projects. Take quarterback Zach Terrell, whose 111 passer rating as a freshman in 2013 is now a national top-five 179, as he averages more than three extra yards per throw.

A coach who rises up the ranks as a coordinator needs to pass a couple of particular tests.

One, he needs to oversee a recruiting program that works. Check.

Two, he needs to oversee growth and success on the side of the ball that isn’t his bread and butter.

His defenses at Western Michigan have not blossomed in the same way that his offenses have, but they are showing steady improvement. The WMU defense has leapt 30 spots in S&P+ from 2015 to 2016.

So despite his youth, Fleck has already demonstrated the two essential competencies for an offensive-minded head coach.

But if Fleck’s your coach, you want offense. That’s what he’s really good at.

The Broncos offense has a spread-option style not dissimilar to Dave Christensen’s old Missouri offenses. But Fleck uses it less as a distribution system and more to get the ball to the best players as many times as possible. If you’ve got good players, why not lean on them?

The run game is the starting point for everything, and it’s based around zone blocking. You can, more or less, sum up the Broncos’ run game as inside zone and outside zone. They run inside zone a few different ways, often with a big H-back clearing out a defensive end:

In this example, facing a second-and-3, WMU wants to run behind big TE Odell Miller. Akron doesn’t want to make that easy and lines up in a run-stopping front. WMU shifts the running back to the H-back’s side of the formation at the last moment, setting up a run to the weak side. And it works.

On a less situational down, Fleck likes to run inside zone with a spread-option twist, usually adding a bubble screen option to star receiver Corey Davis, who’s tied for the national lead with 16 receiving TDs:

Notice they again use a late shift by the RB to run at a different lineman than the defense anticipated and to turn the play into an option look, which the defense might not have been prepared for. The outside WRs are split wide, to keep the cornerbacks out of the play, but the slots are easily accessible via quick throws.

The QB reads the middle linebacker, who stays in the box to help against the inside zone. So the QB flips it out to Davis, one of two receivers in the slot. If the block by the other slot WR on the outside linebacker is successful, the deep safety has to make a tackle on Davis in open grass. WMU likes that matchup.

Davis leads the team in receptions, with 62 for 1,029 yards, many on quick bubble routes like this one. Fleck tends to move him around, so Davis can always be targeted. WMU’s top three receivers – Davis and the cousins Michael Henry and Carrington Thompson – get almost 80 percent of the team’s targets and catches.

If the Broncos need to throw to convert a passing down, they’ll again use alignments to create an easy read for the QB and an easy opportunity for a main receiver to get the ball. Here’s an example on a third-and-5:

The first slot receiver runs inside to draw in the linebackers, leaving Davis isolated in man coverage on the nickel. Davis sets up his man with a head fake and then wins inside for some easy pitch-and-catch.

Almost every play is either targeted to get the ball to a key player or to stress the defense with a spread-option concept. WMU likes how it’s going to go, either way.

If you’re game-planning for Western Michigan, you can expect to see lots of formations, only a few concepts (but all executed at a high level), and plenty of option plays designed to prevent you from keying in on both the lead runner and the lead receiver. You have to pick someone.

Fleck’s found something that works with different players.

This is an ideal system for making the most of top talents. Outside his offensive line, perhaps, Fleck isn’t recruiting exact scheme fits, so much as trying to find top athletes and then plugging them into winning situations.

Fleck is on a similar path to the one Jim McElwain took at Colorado State, which ultimately landed McElwain his current job at Florida. It’s worked out wonderfully for WMU, and Fleck might get to row his own boat to a Power 5 destination in the near future.