One-win coach challenges Big Ten

P.J. Fleck is the youngest coach in the nation at 33 years old.

USA TODAY Sports/Mike Carter

Western Michigan made quite a statement Wednesday to the Mid-America Conference: The Broncos are serious players under their energetic, young coach P.J. Fleck.

Fleck also delivered another message to the big boys.

"We’re going to recruit Big Ten guys to this program and we’re going to steal Big Ten guys and keep them," Fleck told reporters during a signing-day interview, according to BroncoBlitz.com.

That’s big talk for a coach who was 1-11 in his first season at a program that hasn’t even won a MAC championship since 1988.

But Fleck, the youngest coach in the nation at 33 years old, backed up his words on the recruiting trails.

Five-star recruit Malik McDowell picks Michigan State

The Broncos’ 27-player class was ranked No. 53 nationally by Scout.com as of Wednesday afternoon. That was the highest of any so-called "non-BCS" school.

It’s not only the best by far in the MAC this year but also considered the top-rated recruiting class ever in the conference.

Chukwuma Okorafor, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound offensive tackle from Southfield (Mich.) High School who is known simply as "Chooks," reportedly had offers from Ohio State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Florida and Arkansas.

Quarterback Chance Stewart, a 6-5, pro-style quarterback from Sturgis, Mich., had made an early oral commitment to Wisconsin but switched to WMU after coach Bret Bielema left the Badgers to take the Arkansas job last year.

Other top players in Western’s class include Lonnie Johnson, a receiver from Gary, Ind., who had offers from Ohio State and four other Big Ten teams, and Javonte Seabury, a speedster from Orlando, Fla., who had an offer from national champion Florida State.

"He has changed the culture there," Allen Trieu, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said of Fleck. "He’s a very engaging person with a magnetic personality. He has kids wanting to play for him and wanting to run through walls for him."

Consider where Western Michigan’s classes have been ranked by Scout.com over the last 12 years:

2013: No. 99 nationally (eighth in MAC).

2012: No. 93 (eighth).

2011: No. 112 (ninth)

2010: No. 83 (third).

2009: No. 91 (fourth).

2008: No. 101 (seventh).

2007: No. 106 (eighth).

2006: No. 98 (fifth).

2005: Tied-No. 104 (10th).

2004: Tied-No. 89 (tied-sixth).

2003: No. 91 (fifth).

2002: Tied-No. 92 (tied-seventh).

Fleck has come in and changed everything.

Part of the reason for the high ranking this year is that Western has such a large class, but it is clearly a quality group, too, especially by MAC standards.

Fifteen of the signees are three-star recruits, according to Scout.com, about twice as many as any other team in the MAC this year.

In the last five years, WMU signed a combined total of only 11 players with three-star rankings.

 "We’ve done a lot of things in one year that takes most programs five," Fleck said at Wednesday’s news conference to introduce the signing class.

Fleck, an undrafted receiver coming out of Northern Illinois, played in only one game in the NFL, the season finale in 2004 with the San Francisco 49ers.

But he made a strong impression on then-49ers coach Dennis Erickson, who called him a "frickin’ warrior" during a rookie camp.

That type of tenacity is now coming through in Fleck’s coaching style.

Fleck was an assistant at Ohio State, Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and then for one year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before getting the Western job.

Even without any success on the field, he has energized the program around Kalamazoo, Mich., including when he and his wife took this "polar-bear plunge" a year ago.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Fleck raved about his new players, many of who are expected to contribute immediately.

He said that Okorafor’s "ceiling is limitless," that Stewart is already such an intelligent quarterback that he could be an assistant coach, and that Johnson has "freakish athleticism."

"It’s brought excitement," Trieu said, "but now it’s also going to bring high expectations and some pressure on this class to produce."

 

EXTRA POINTS

— Damon Webb, a four-star recruit and one of the top two players in the state of Michigan, opted for arch-rival Ohio State.

"He’s a great cover corner," Trieu said. "He’s got everything you want. Size, he could be a Division I receiver with those ball skills. I think he really has a chance to play early at Ohio State.

"He definitely flirted with the idea of going to Michigan or Michigan State, but I think he wanted to break away from the state lines and kind of do his own thing.  They (Ohio State’s coaching staff) really did an outstanding job of making him feel wanted."

— Tyler Wiegers, a 6-4, four-star quarterback from Detroit Country Day, signed with Iowa.

"I think he found the perfect situation for himself at Iowa," Trieu said. "Iowa has done a great job of nurturing their quarterbacks and putting them in positions to win. They have won with kids much less talented than Tyler. He’s got the arm to make all the throws. He’s going to be a really good one."

— Jhonathon Williams, a defensive end from Berrien Springs (Mich.), is headed to Notre Dame.

"Other than (Southfield defensive lineman) Malik McDowell, he might have the most upside and most athletic talent of any kid in the state," Trieu said. "He just hasn’t played a ton of football yet. He was a basketball player who picked up (football) late. That basketball player athleticism was very apparent."

— Travis Smith, a quarterback from Ithaca who was named Michigan’s High School Player of the Year, ended up at Wake Forest.

"He’s a kid who knows how to win," Trieu said. "He didn’t lose a game in his entire high school career. I think he’s going to be a player for them."