Between August 1, 2022 and May 1, 2023, over 8,000 college football players entered the transfer portal, an ever-growing phenomenon which wasn’t even in the sport’s lexicon five years ago. In the modern era, not only do college football coaches need to fulfill their regular high school recruiting duties, but addressing the names in the transfer portal is now another essential item in the job description.
But sometimes, you don’t need to recruit star talent in the transfer portal, because that talent has already made up its mind. Such is the case with former East Carolina cornerback Malik Fleming. In four seasons at ECU, Fleming played roughly 2,300 snaps. The Georgia native registered 105 tackles, 17 pass breakups, and six interceptions as a Pirate, attaining Second Team All-AAC honors in 2022 for his greatest season to date.
When deciding where to prolong his college career, Fleming held offers from several universities. But for the 5’8” cornerback, there was really one destination that crossed his mind the moment he entered the portal — Houston, an opponent he squared up against in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
“For me, it was a no-brainer being an undersized corner,” Fleming said. “I watched what they did with Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams and said, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ I had a bunch of other schools come after me, but I knew where I wanted to be.”
Marcus Jones, a First Team All-Pro with the New England Patriots as a rookie in 2022, thrived as a 5’8” cornerback and return specialist in three seasons at Houston. Jones attained All-American status at both positions, picking off five passes and returning four punts for touchdowns in his final year as a Cougar. Meanwhile, the 5’10” Williams warranted a fourth round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2022 after breaking up eight passes for a Houston secondary with ranked 19th in aerial defense in 2021.
Fleming saw how defensive coordinator Doug Belk and Houston’s staff utilized these cornerbacks, and couldn’t find a more seamless fit for himself.
“There was no pitch,” Fleming said. “I knew this is where I wanted to be, and that they’d take my game to the next level because of guys like that.”
Fleming’s first exposure to Houston transpired on Oct. 23, 2021. The game experienced possibly the largest recorded weather delay in college football history, kicking off five hours and 18 minutes after the originally scheduled start time due to an onslaught of lightning. After enduring a delay for the ages, Fleming recalls instantly being impressed with Houston’s playmakers, specifically Jones.
“For the first kick of the game, we kicked it to Marcus,” Fleming said. “He didn’t make it past the 30. All week we had been preaching, he was a dangerous returner. I walked up to him and was like, ‘You’re not like that. I don’t really feel that you’re the guy that everybody sees on film.’ He looked at me like, ‘I’m gonna run the next one back,’ and he did it. I looked at him and was like, ‘He’s real.’ He’s a ball player and Houston goes and gets great players, and I want to play with guys like that.”
When Fleming expressed his interest in transferring to Houston, head coach Dana Holgorsen knew what kind of talent was entering his defensive back room. Fleming had been a focal point of film studies the two prior years when Houston faced East Carolina.
“Malik Fleming, I didn’t hand pick him,” Holgorsen said. “It was his decision to come here. But watching him for the last two years, nobody covered Tank Dell better than he did. He’s got a lot of experience and played almost 3,000 snaps in college. We knew we needed some help at DB.”
Dell led the entire country in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in 2022. He also checked in at second in receptions, leveraging his insane statistical outputs into a third round NFL Draft selection. But when Dell was pitted against Fleming in 2021, the then-ECU cornerback held his own, limiting the star receiver to four receptions for 33 yards. However, in the ensuing 2022 meeting, Dell exacted revenge with 176 yards on nine receptions — one of his seven 150-yard performances at Houston. But that first matchup raised plenty of eyebrows, as Fleming kept the seemingly unguardable Dell relatively in check.
“He was one of the hardest receivers I ever had to cover, but I knew he was a great receiver and he was gonna get his,” Fleming said. “My job was just to win more than I lost. I feel like I did that.”
Now, Fleming is replicating that same success he enjoyed against the Cougars as a members of the Cougars. In his Houston debut Saturday against UTSA, Fleming was the most prevalent playmaker on the field. The all-conference cornerback instantly stamped his footprint on the game, running a punt 48 yards into Roadrunner territory to set up Houston’s first of two touchdowns in a 17-14 victory.
Then, Fleming made an imprint on the defensive side of the ball. He intercepted back-to-back passes from UTSA quarterback Frank Harris in the third quarter. The second of those interceptions provided Houston excellent field advantage, which was utilized for the team’s second and final touchdown of a tightly-contested victory.
“Nothing he does surprises me. I watched him for two years at East Carolina,” Holgorsen said. “I’m sitting there on the sidelines saying, ‘I want that guy on my team.’ I just have a lot of respect for him when we played against him and coached against him. We brought him here and he just broke the team down. He was thankful for the opportunity to be able to be here. That’s the kind of kid he is. When he got that punt return out, I turned to Tank Dell, Marcus Jones, and Marquez Stevenson and said, ‘It ain’t you guys. It’s what we do punt return wise around here,’ and they laughed.”
Houston is now sold on Fleming, and Fleming is even more sold on Houston than he was when committing. The cornerback reveled in the Saturday night atmosphere at TDECU Stadium, which brought the venue’s largest crowd since 2017. Fleming left the scene victorious and inspired by the city’s increased backing of the program — which is now a Big 12 atmosphere.
“I’m used to playing in front of sold out crowds at Dowdy-Ficklen,” Fleming said. “Here, the players never had a sold-out crowd... And then they were talking about how the game was sold out. This is crazy, especially being in a city where you have multiple sports teams and different colleges, and everybody’s here to support us — it’s amazing.”