Kalamazoo — Western Michigan held its annual Wooden Oar spring football game on a beautiful sunny afternoon Saturday at Waldo Stadium and third-year head coach P.J. Fleck left impressed and optimistic with the upcoming 2015 season.
And, Fleck should be. The Broncos had one of the nation's biggest turnarounds last season, going from a 1-win team to an 8-5 season (6-2 Mid-American Conference), including an appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
The Broncos return the majority of their starters, including major weapons offensively in Jarvion Franklin, the MAC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman running back; quarterback Zach Terrell and receivers Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman.
Terrell, who threw for 3,443 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, had an impressive spring game with 15 completions and 223 yards passing while Franklin rushed for 80 yards and two touchdowns and Davis caught five passes for 142 yards to lead the Gold team to a 34-10 win over the Brown.
"We challenged them to have 15 practices where they came out and they started fast and finished strong, the energy was high and the leadership was there and they nailed that part," said the 34-year-old Fleck, who inked a six-year, $4.8 million deal in December to make him the MAC's top-paid coach. "Now, the technique, the discipline, the details and all the other little stuff we have to iron out, but I was very, very pleased with the energy level throughout the entire spring.
"We had a lot of competition and the competition grew in spring and we had a chance to see that today. We haven't had any competition for two years in the entire program. I think at every position you can start to see, the program's developing, the twos and threes are really taking some reps, performing, scoring touchdowns, stopping them on defense, making plays."
Redshirt freshman Chance Stewart and incoming freshman Tom Flacco, younger brother of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, each showed flashes of brilliance while battling for the backup spot behind Terrell.
Stewart, who originally committed to Wisconsin, showed great touch on a pass to running back Leo Ekwoge, who turned it into a 78-yard touchdown in the third quarter and Flacco found Carrington Thompson for a 13-yard touchdown early in the fourth.
"We have a second-string quarterback battle," Fleck said. "I thought Chance had a nice day. He has to get better in a few areas. I thought Flacco did a nice job of managing the team. You can see why those guys are starting to make huge strides. They're not ready to go in a game today, but they are making huge strides."
The Broncos will now have a target on their back, a legitimate contender for the MAC title, opening the season at home Sept. 4 against Michigan State, then playing Sept. 26 at national champion Ohio State.
The MAC is showcasing the Broncos, a reason they will be playing six mid-week games, including two on Wednesday, two on Thursday and two Friday.
The Broncos also have the nation's No. 39 recruiting class for 2016 by rivals.com with four three-star recruits on board, including Clinton Township Chippewa Valley standout receiver Stefan Claiborne.
"The difference between a year ago and this year is just confidence," Franklin said. "We all have developed that confidence and now we just go out and do what we need to do. We don't accept failure."
Fleck implemented a no-tackle scrimmage to the game to prevent injuries, but there was plenty of contact on both sides of the line which gave the coaching staff a glimpse of the future of 6-foot-2, 288-pound center John Keenoy and sophomore tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (Southfield).
Keenoy, a member of The News Dream Team, graduated early from East Kentwood so he could compete for the starting center spot. Okorafor, who is just 17, has won the starting spot at right tackle heading into August camp.
"I don't know if he would be starting if he didn't come early," Fleck said of Keenoy. "If you're an offensive lineman, if you come early you give yourself the best opportunity to start. We get a whole spring to evaluate you, to see where you're at. Coming early helped Keenoy.
"Keenoy is a center and he's going to be our center. That spot is his to lose and he gained that advantage by coming early. He's young, but he is a fiery, tough guy. He's exactly what we thought he was in recruiting. You hit on some and you miss on some and we hit on John Keenoy."
Of Okorafor, Fleck said, "Chukwuma, he's a kid now who is our starting right tackle. He's extremely athletic. He has all the physical tools. He's just 17, don't scare him. We've got him brainwashed."
Franklin is confident Keenoy and Okorafor can get the job done. Franklin and Okorafor will be roommates next season.
"They might be newcomers, but they're doing a great job of opening holes," Franklin said. "You would never know they were newcomers unless you read the stat sheet. I'm confident with them."
The Broncos have starters back on the offensive line in 6-5, 310-pound left tackle Willie Beavers (Southfield-Lathrup), left guard Jimmy Kristof (6-3, 320) and right guard Taylor Moton (6-5, 315).
Darius Phillips (Dearborn Heights Robichaud) will move to the defensive side of the ball after two years at receiver. Phillips, who had 32 receptions and 1,308 all-purpose yards, will take over for All-MAC cornerback Donald Celiscar.
"Darius looks awesome and I feel he'll fill my shoes well," said Celiscar, who participated in the NFL combine and is expected to be a fourth- to sixth-round pick in the upcoming draft. "He's an athlete and he's learned the defense well. I feel he and Ronald Zamort will both be lock-down (corners)."
Said Fleck: "We have athletes who can play both sides of the ball. Darius Phillips, who is basically an all-conference kick returner and really a third-team wide-out in some things, you move him over and make him a corner. He'll play offense too. Darius is really fast and really talented. He can naturally cover people because he's so athletic. He's a tough, tough young man."
Linebackers will be an area of strength defensively with senior Grant DePalma (102 tackles) and sophomore Robert Spillane (67 tackles) returning.