USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Lucas Bezerra held offers from Indiana and South Florida. Jamauri Bogan from Georgia Tech. Jay Harris from Pittsburgh. Lonnie Johnson from Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Purdue; Jakevin Jackson from Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia.
The greatest recruiting class in Mid-American Conference history has been assembled. It's one that dinged a few bluebloods – particularly the bottom section of the Big Ten – while leaving the rest of the MAC in the dust, giving Western Michigan and second-year coach P.J. Fleck the horses to ride back into postseason play.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Mid-American Conference
So we know that Fleck can recruit. Can he coach? After a summer spent waxing poetic on nektons, Steve Prefontaine and America's farmers, Fleck found it difficult to put his motivational tactics into action during his first season: WMU went 1-11, losing to both Nicholls State and Eastern Michigan while narrowly escaping a winless finish with a one-point victory against Massachusetts.
His recruiting prowess will give Fleck a two-year pass – and he'll take every second, I'd think. The first pass was for 2013; the second is for 2014, when the Broncos' staff will be taxed by the responsibility of getting an unparalleled recruiting class ready for August and September. These three-star freshmen are still freshmen, after all.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Here's what I think will occur: WMU will start no better than 2-4 before growing more comfortable in Fleck's system just as the schedule eases up over the second half. If all things work out as Fleck hopes, WMU will catch fire just in time to challenge for six wins in November. It's more likely that WMU starts 1-5 or 2-4, beats a few bad teams down the stretch and makes things somewhat interesting against Ball State and NIU before ending the regular season with no more than five wins.
In a nutshell: If all goes according to plan, WMU will look back at 2013 not as a lost season but as the start of something grand – a season spent rehabbing a roster to fit into Fleck's vision for the program. That's if all goes according to plan. For today, however, it's hard to digest just how rapidly this program fell from the MAC's top half: Western Michigan wasn't merely bad but buffoonish, taking the field every Saturday for three months and ineptly dropping game after game against teams good, bad and ambivalent. A true equal-opportunity offender, in short. That's the present take on last season; Fleck and the staff control how last fall will be viewed in hindsight.
High point: A 31-30 win against UMass. The lone bright spot in an otherwise dreary season – though WMU exhausted this goodwill by taking the field two weeks later and losing to Eastern Michigan.
Low point: Losses to Nicholls State and EMU.
Tidbit: Western Michigan pulled off a rare double-dip in 2013. The Broncos became just the fourth team in the last decade to lose to both Eastern Michigan and a Football Championship Subdivision opponent in the same season, joining Army in 2012 (Stony Brook), Northern Illinois in 2007 (Southern Illinois) and Central Michigan in 2007 (North Dakota State).
Tidbit (EMU edition): The Broncos have five non-losing seasons during the last nine years, a period beginning with the start of Bill Cubit's tenure in 2005. During this time, however, the Broncos have struggled mightily with the MAC's weakest program, Eastern Michigan: WMU is 5-4 against the Eagles since 2005, dropping the last three by six points or less. In comparison, the remaining four teams in the West Division are a combined 29-7 against EMU during the same span.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Offensive skill players in the MAC, 2003
1. Josh Harris, Bowling Green
2. Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (Ohio)
3. Michael Turner, Northern Illinois
4. Lance Moore, Toledo
5. Greg Jennings, Western Michigan
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Any discussion of personnel must begin with a pertinent fact: Western Michigan adds 24 incoming recruits during the summer. Basically, the two-deep that exited the spring will undergo a potentially drastic overhaul before the opener – without any exception. This is true even at wide receiver, where a number of incoming freshman have a good chance at cracking a group led by the MAC's most promising skill player. That would be sophomore Corey Davis (67 receptions for 941 yards), a near-effortless talent who stands as the central piece in WMU's offensive puzzle.
Not that he's perfect: Davis' numbers were manifested by a whole-hog passing attack, one that looked toward the sophomore on nearly every down and distance – inflating his numbers to the detriment of the passing game as a whole, perhaps. But Davis is the linchpin of a group inflated by several recruits – Javonte Seabury, Jay Harris and Lonnie Johnson – and the return of several running mates, including Timmy Keith (20 for 218), Alec Moulton and Kendrick Roberts (23 for 354). If Davis can produce with a smaller share, Roberts can stretch the field and two of the freshmen can produce, this has the makings of one of the MAC's best receiver corps.
WMU's backfield was shredded by graduation – until March 18, when the NCAA gave senior Dareyon Chance (692 yards) a sixth year of eligibility. That solves one major problem: Chance isn't an every-down back in a good offense, but he does give WMU at least one experienced hand at a position of extreme need. The next step is to find either a new lead back – because Chance is best served in a change-of-pace role – or locate a bigger, sturdier option to take care of short-yardage situations and serve in certain packages. That could be one of two incoming recruits, Jarvion Franklin and Leo Ekwoge; it could be a holdover, though none of the returning backs outside of Chance have taken a meaningful snap. WMU brings in another gifted talent in Jamauri Bogan, but he may be too similar to the projected starter to pull major snaps as a rookie.
This line grows stronger with each practice, as one might expect from a young and untested group thrown to the wolves a season ago. Having said that, the line didn't perform terribly a season ago: Fleck needs more from the front, of course, but that it didn't disintegrate into dust and ash in an 11-loss season is a good omen. The line also remains largely intact, with junior Willie Beavers and sophomore Taylor Moton on the edges, senior Jon Hoffing at center and junior James Kristof at left guard, and this continuity will breed a more cohesive lineup by August. While another five linemen arrive during the summer, don't look for one to grab a starting role by the opener – though one, Chukwuma Okorafor, could by the heart of MAC play, and several are already penciled into the rotation.
Defense: The foundation is in place for a pretty good defense – not this year, perhaps not next year, but at some point in the future. The defense as a whole is dreadfully young along the front seven, though the secondary is loaded with senior experience. For now, a deep, experienced and altogether solid backfield will have to hold down the fort as Fleck and staff blend a defensive roster teeming with first- and second-year players into the front seven. This is out of necessity: WMU loses the heart of its line rotation and its entire starting lineup at linebacker.
So the front seven embarks on a painful learning curve. Four experienced hands lead the charge: Cleveland Smith (15 tackles, 5.0 for loss) and Jamar Simpkins on the interior, Jarrell McKinney (30 tackles) and Keion Adams at end. At tackle, newcomers Ken Finley and Nick Matich have the size – and Finley the recruiting bona fides – to contribute immediately; on the edges, redshirt freshmen Andre Turner and Khairi Bailey could be starters by August, with Turner a potential difference-maker for a pass rush long on questions and short on production. You see it up front more than anywhere else: WMU must be willing to take the lumps associated with a shift toward youth. The potential is obvious, however.
Another quartet of new faces will help the Broncos rebuild at linebacker. One is a redshirt freshman, Caleb Bailey, who could slot into one of the three open positions. But only two seem open for debate, as Trevor Ishmael's strong spring gives the senior the inside track on the strong side. WMU also returns senior Devon Bryant after an ACL injury, giving the defense an option in the middle, but the competition won't take off until Jakevin Jackson, Robert Spillane and Jason Sylva join the mix in August. By the end of fall camp, you could see a starting lineup of Jackson in the middle and Bailey and Ishmael on the outside.
At least the secondary is secure, even if the staff must build depth behind a senior-heavy group – both for 2014 and for 2015, when the older cast departs. This quartet does three things well: one, limit the big play; two, disrupt passing lanes; and three, lend run support. One safety, senior Justin Currie (86 tackles), does all three things well – making him a clear all-conference contender. With Currie and senior Rontavious Atkins at safety and Donald Celiscar and Ronald Zamort (45 tackles) at cornerback – this pair will attack the ball in the air – WMU's secondary is the unquestioned strength of not only the defense but the entire roster. But it's an older group, remember, so it's vital that Notre Dame transfer Justin Ferguson, incoming freshmen Deontae Brown and second-year cornerbacks Justin Motley, Logan Oce and Darius Phillips get up to speed.
Special teams: Celiscar has produced in the return game, though I wonder if WMU can afford to put the senior back on kickoffs given the lack of proven depth at cornerback. Likewise with Chance, who handled dual duties last fall but seems irreplaceable on offense. The kicking game is steady behind kicker Andrew Haldeman and punter J. Schroeder, but the coverage teams are a weak link. Perhaps the influx of younger talent boosts the Broncos' reliability in coverage.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: Don't be surprised if another true freshman alters the Broncos' competition under center. As of today, WMU is leaning toward sophomore Zach Terrell, a six-game starter last fall – he replaced Tyler Van Tubbergen and had one great game, against UMass – who capped offseason drills with a solid spring game. Three reasons why WMU likes Terrell over redshirt freshman Cam Thomas: one, Terrell has the edge in experience; two, he played with greater confidence during the spring, making the sort of throws he would have avoided a season ago – grain of salt included, of course; and three, he has an obvious rapport with Davis, as evidenced by a 79-yard connection with the all-conference sophomore during the spring game. All things being equal, Terrell would be the starter come August. But that might change with the arrival of three-star freshman Chance Stewart, who has already been anointed the Broncos' quarterback of the future. The future might meet the present should Stewart grasp the offense during fall camp – and he seems ahead of the curve, thanks to a few trips to Kalamazoo during spring drills.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Eastern Michigan: Another loss to EMU – this time at home – would be utterly inexcusable. The good news about this schedule: WMU takes on Idaho, Murray State, EMU and Miami (Ohio), and taking three of four is highly possible. The bad news: WMU takes on Purdue, Virginia Tech and six likely bowl teams from the MAC. More bad news? Ball State, Bowling Green and Central Michigan come on the road. At home, the Broncos pull Ohio, Toledo and Northern Illinois – three teams dreaming of at least eight wins during the regular season.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The future according to P.J. Fleck: Western Michigan rides waves upon waves of talent to the top of the MAC, outhitting, outrunning and outmuscling the competition in tossing aside would-be rivals like Northern Illinois, Toledo, Ball State and Central Michigan. Fleck's vision – whether or not it holds any flaws – has been evident since day one, when he began the process of overhauling the Broncos' roster with a do-or-die commitment to the recruiting trail. One premier class is an aberration; two is a sign; three would be a trend. At this rate, WMU will have stockpiled enough talent to wear down enough conference foes to ensure annual bowl eligibility. That's the program's future, should Fleck see it through to fruition.
But that ignores two issues. The first is that Fleck and the staff need to prove they can develop this talent – as it's one thing to convince talented recruits to sign on the dotted line and another to turn them into proven college contributors. The second is that the future isn't merely around the corner; it's years away, as in two or more, and this year's team is far too young, raw, untested and inexperienced to expect any major growth from a season ago. How can WMU turn the tide? By being patient as the talented roster grows accustomed to the college game – with some help from the staff.
A very bare-bones look at the roster reveals the Broncos' youth. It'll be either a six-game starter or a freshman at quarterback. There's nothing behind Chance at running back. At least half of the defensive line rotation will be true or redshirt freshmen; the offensive line is reliant on fresh faces to round out a two-deep, as will linebacker. The Broncos' special teams must be overloaded with newcomers merely to survive. The only positions in good shape? Wide receiver – also chock-full of youngsters – and the secondary, though the offensive front will improve. This is not the year WMU turns the page. How the team develops even during a losing season will decide if Fleck's vision is a thing of the future.
Dream season: WMU sweeps that winnable quartet, upsets Ohio and sneaks past rival Central Michigan to secure bowl eligibility at least one season ahead of schedule.
Nightmare season: With no UMass on the slate, the Broncos go from one win to zero.
Who's No. 116? This team's linebackers coach once played alongside a wide receiver who was drafted in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.