Alex Grace has gone from record-breaking running back to hard-hitting linebacker, trying to help Western Michigan win its second Mid-American Conference championship in the last three years.
Grace set a then state-record when he rushed for 2,962 yards during his junior year at Saginaw Swan Valley, then set another state record with eight consecutive 200-yard rushing games during his senior season in 2014.
He was No. 12 in the News Blue Chip Recruits list.
Grace accepted a scholarship offer from then-WMU head coach P.J. Fleck and Fleck turned him into a linebacker, where he learned his craft from all-MAC performers Robert Spillane and Asantay Brown when the Broncos went 13-0 before a Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin to close the 2016 season.
After getting in on 32 tackles as a backup linebacker and special-teams player last season, Grace has played well in his first year as a starter this season, and is looking forward to avenging last year’s loss to Central Michigan so the Broncos can enter the final third of the regular season with all of their goals ahead — the MAC West championship for the right to play for the MAC title game Nov. 30 at Ford Field.
The Broncos (5-2, 3-0) play at Central Michigan (1-6, 0-3) on Saturday afternoon at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant.
“My freshman year, I really didn’t get to experience the Western-Central rivalry, just had to watch,” Grace said of his red-shirt freshman season. “It’s a great rivalry, the game you always look forward to.
“We had that game won last year and let it slip through our fingers, so we’re bitter. We’re hungry so we want to get back at them. Two years ago when we were there (49-10 WMU win) they had a great crowd.
"It’s a fun place to play when we come there so we’re looking forward to it.”
Last year, WMU entered the Central game at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo with a 5-3 record (3-1 MAC), then had a 28-14 lead and was driving for another TD at the CMU 4 when backup quarterback Reece Goddard fumbled, opening the door for a CMU comeback 35-28 victory.
WMU junior quarterback Jon Wassink, who missed the second half of the 2017 season with a broken collarbone, has returned to full health, throwing for 1,924 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“When I came to college, Coach Fleck (now at Minnesota) at the time told me I was going to be an athlete, that’s what I was going to be recruited as,” Grace said. “I had always wanted to be a running back, but I told him if I’m not at running back just put me where you think I’ll do best and he put me at linebacker.
“I got to sit behind a couple of great guys for two years and they just taught me the ropes. Now, I wouldn’t want to go back to running back, love it at linebacker. I learned from Robert Spillane, Asantay Brown, Caleb Bailey, Grant DePalma.
“I just learned about the linebacker mindset because coming from offense you’re usually the one who is getting hit so you have to flip the switch which takes a while since it’s big-time college football.
"They pretty much were telling me to just be persistent, to focus on the fundamentals.”
Grace had some big games last year, forcing two fumbles in a win over Ball State, and has carried the confidence over into this season.
“Now, it’s all just come into fruition,” Grace said. “I got to watch from some of the best to ever come through here. Asantay is in the NFL, Spillane is with the Titans.
“I play the SAM linebacker, I’m out in coverage a little more than the inside guys so it requires a little bit more speed and ability to be in coverage. I really love hitting people instead of getting hit which is awesome.
"I think there’s no better feeling than getting a tackle for loss or watching one of your boys get a huge hit and then celebrating with them.”
Grace, who ran a 4.5 40 in high school, has bulked up and is playing at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, showing his physical play by separating the ball from a Bowling Green receiver during the second half of WMU’s 42-35 comeback win over the Falcons last Saturday.
Grace had a team-high 12 tackles in a 27-24 win over Eastern Michigan on Oct. 6, and has 48 tackles with a team-leading eight for lost yardage.
Western Michigan at Central Michigan
Kickoff: 3 Saturday, Kelly/Shorts Stadium, Mount Pleasant
Records: Western Michigan 5-2, 3-0 MAC; Central Michigan 1-6, 0-3
Line: Western Michigan by 4