Winston Gordon knows from experience what a good defensive back looks like when he sees one.
Since starting the football program at Hapeville Charter and Career Academy outside of Atlanta in 2011, Gordon, along with defensive coordinator Kevin Pope and secondary coach Saeed Lee, have helped develop multiple major college cornerbacks and safeties. Those include South Carolina safety Antoine Wilder, Georgia cornerback William Poole III and cornerback Chris Smith, who’ll join Poole with the Bulldogs next fall.
So when Gordon says rising Hapeville senior cornerback Malik Fleming ranks right along with those players in talent and potential, it means something.
“He is a one-of-a-kind athlete and talent,” Gordon said of the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Fleming, who decided to join East Carolina’s football recruiting Class of 2019 on March 31. He chose the Pirates after also considering offers from Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Boston College, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia Southern, Louisville, South Alabama, Southern Miss, Syracuse, Troy and Tulane.
Despite all that interest, Fleming said ECU was his focus from the time the Pirates extended a scholarship offer last December. He made two unofficial visits to the ECU campus, including one during the annual Purple-Gold spring scrimmage on March 24.
“Really, it was just them,” Fleming said. “I had the chance to speak to a lot of the players and they were always talking about the family environment. I felt that. Then, when I talked to (head) Coach (Scottie) Montgomery he told me nothing would be given to me, but I would have the chance to earn playing time with hard work. That sold me because all I want is a chance to prove myself at that level.”
Growing up in a football family helped Fleming learn at an early age about earning his place on the field. He has two cousins playing in the National Football League, including Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry. Two other cousins played at the major college level last season – North Carolina safety Donnie Miles and Purdue running back D.J. Knox.
“Those guys help make me the player I am,” Fleming said. “Because of them I had the mindset from the time I started playing at age four that I had to work to be a good player. They encouraged me to keep striving to get better.”
Fleming first made his mark at the high school varsity level as a sophomore at Creekside High School in Fairburn, Georgia. He was a bright spot on a 5-5 Creekside squad, making 35 tackles and an interception on defense, while also accumulating 274 yards in kick returns.
But after two seasons at Creekside, Fleming was ready for another challenge and a program that could best prepare him for the major college level. Impressed by Gordon and Pope’s history of developing defensive backs, Fleming decided to transfer to Hapeville Charter for his junior year.
Playing a corner position opposite the Georgia-bound Smith in Hapeville’s 4-2-5 alignment, Fleming ranked tied for second in the state with nine interceptions to help the Seminoles claim the AA championship. Hapeville defeated Rabun County, 35-23, for the title to complete a 14-1 season.
Fleming made his presence felt from the outset with his new team. Facing a Fitzgerald at Banneker team in the 2017 season opener that had beaten the Seminoles in the state semifinals the year before, Fleming intercepted two passes and blocked a potential game-tying field goal on the final play to preserve a 25-22 victory.
“If they kick the field goal, we go into overtime,” Gordon said. “But he comes off the edge and blocks that kick. That set the tone for us and catapulted us to the state championship.”
Gordon said Fleming may be the best all-around secondary player he’s had at Hapeville.
“Malik is more of an athletic, can-do-just-about-anything guy,” Gordon said. “Antoine Wilder was more physical. Will Poole is a bigger, prototypical cornerback and Chris Smith is a long, wiry, island-type corner.
“Malik us just well rounded. He’s not just an island guy at corner. He reminds me of (former Florida State and NFL cornerback) Terrell Buckley because he has these long arms. Furthermore, he’s a great person. He’s just a great kid and a phenomenal athlete.”
Gordon sees Freeman making an immediate impact at East Carolina.
“I think he’ll play from day one,” Gordon said. “He’s that type of athlete and a student of the game. Even if it’s just on special teams, he’ll show he deserves to be on the field with his work ethic as soon as he gets there.”