It may be a no-brainer, but it has to be said: As the defensive line goes in 2012, so goes the ECU defense. Horribly maligned – and fairly so – the defensive first level was a disaster in 2010. Under weight, thin in depth, and not able to execute in the 4-3, the line was pushed around and blown out. In 2011, revamped to a 3-4, the Pirates defensive line held its own and at times showed it might become a very good unit.
This year, the defensive line has a great mix of experience, depth, and leadership and may very well be a very, very good unit to start the season. A few things have to break the right way, like a couple of the unproven youngsters have to show that they are ready for prime time and we have to avoid injuries, but by and large, the evidence points in the right direction. A year ago, what this defensive first level did very well, was execute the 3-4 concept properly, by tying up the offensive line and letting the linebackers worry about making the tackles and getting pressure on the QB. As a result, the Pirates linebackers across the board piled up the tackle numbers.
This season, Defensive Coordinator Brian Mitchell would most certainly like to see this defensive front not only execute its role in the 3-4 scheme, but also put heavy pressure on the QB, too. In short, he wants his front-liners to be dominant at each respective position. Mitchell has numbers to work with, so much so, starter Derrell Johnson and primary backup Maurice Falls have been moved back to outside linebacker to take advantage of their pass rushing skills.
So, who are the young men tasked with this responsibility:
- Michael Brooks (SR-RS)
- Justin Dixon (JR)
- John Lattimore (JR-TR)
- Matt Milner (JR-RS)
- Lee Pegues (JR)
- Leroy Vick (JR-TR)
- Terry Biles (SO)
- Darian Harris (SO)
- Chrishon Rose (SO-RS)
- Terry Williams (SO-RS)
- Jeton Beavers (FR-RS)
- Terrell Stanley (FR-RS)
- Jonathon White (FR-RS)
- Will Foxx (FR)
Michael Brooks: The defensive front and the whole defensive unit – really – s tarts right in the middle of the defensive front and specifically with the senior Brooks. A NFL-prospect at his position, the 6-3, athletic 300 pounder learned from a great one in current starting New York Giants DT Linval Joseph and is one of the best defensive linemen in Conference USA. Brooks is smart, athletic and strong and most of all, unselfish and disciplined in his play. He piled up 55 tackles (5 1/2 for loss), with a sack and a fumble recovery and started and played in all 12 games in 2011 in a scheme where tackling is a secondary focus. He will be asked to be a vocal leader this time around.
Prediction: Brook will be the clear-cut No. 1 coming out of spring.
Terry Williams: At 6-1, 325 pounds, the buzz around the program a year ago was that Williams had put on too much weight to be effective. The on-field result, however, was quite different as Williams established himself as a high-talent at the No. 2 spot behind Brooks. In fact, a case could be made that Williams progress a year ago may have put the Pirates rotation at the nose among the best combination in the league. He piled up 31 tackles (3 for loss) to go with a QB hurry, a pair of forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He was healthy and strong and now comes into camp bringing exactly what is needed: A solid back-up who will push a player who is already elite.
Prediction: Williams will likely be the clear-cut No. 2 out of camp or be an “Or” at No. 2. Either way, Williams will be a huge factor for the Pirates in 2012.
Leroy Vick: It appears that tough luck has struck again for the massive JUCO transfer. Last year, while in the midst of an excellent spring camp, the nose/DE suffered a season-ending injury. He redshirted and then embraced Camp Connors to develop into a huge specimen at 6-6 and nearly 300 pounds. This time, a concussion has put Vick on the shelf for part of spring camp…the guy can’t seem to catch a break. Still, once he is cleared, he should compete for a depth chart position this year. The redshirt season, hopefully, will be a blessing in disguise for the Pirates as now he will have another year in the program after Brooks heads on.
Prediction: If he gets back in and shows what he has shown so far, Vick will come out of camp as an “Or” No. 2 or the No. 3, both of which will get PT in the fall.
Will Foxx: Foxx entered the program this spring, but he did so after a gray shirt year, meaning he enrolled at the university and prepared himself academically to join the team. After completing his redshirt season, he now – with a year of Camp Connors – is making his first foray into spring camp. Foxx was a very good NT at Greensboro Page high school two years ago and is built for the position at 6-2 and pushing 300 pounds. Look for Foxx to learn and learn and learn this spring.
Prediction: Foxx will not likely be on the depth chart after the spring and that is a good thing because it means that the three big guns are all clicking at the job. Foxx will focus on a DC climb later in the season into next spring.
Matt Milner; Though Milner entered camp hampered a bit with an injury that is limiting his participation early on, he is one of the clear returning starters at one of the DE positions. The hope is that Milner will get pushed hard in this camp by some of the younger players, but in the end, retain his job. He is an active – albeit a bit undersized – athlete, who racked up 37 tackles (4 for loss) to go with a 1/2 sack, a PBU, a QB hurry and a fumble recovery a year ago. He is a very smart football player who operates his technique perfectly. Starting all but one game a year ago, Milner should retain his job.
Prediction: Milner will exit camp atop the depth chart for one of the starting DE positions.
Justin Dixon: It has been a mixed road to this point for the former 4-star linebacker prospect, but there appears to be a bright light at the end of the tunnel. In 2010, the true freshman was asked to bulk up and move down from linebacker to defensive end because of horribly thin numbers at the position. He was near brilliant in his first four and half games before being lost for the year to an injury. With the switch to the 3-4 in 2011, it was just assumed that Dixon would drop back and grab an OLB position. It never happened. He got lost in the position, despite having superior pass rushing skills. Now, back at DE and motivated in a way he has not been in two years, Dixon appears headed for a lot of PT at the DE position. At DE in this system, he would be a different type for the Pirates because at his size, pushing 280 pounds, he is fast allowing him not only to scheme against a tackle to allow pressure from the OLBs, but also to be able to put pressure on the QB directly.
Prediction: Dixon surprises and comes out of camp listed as an “OR” at one of the No. 1 spots at the position.
Lee Pegues: Pegues established himself very well a year ago, racking up 26 tackles (1 1/2 for loss), a sack, and a QB hurry, in his role as a first-guy-in at the position. Pegues knows the position and is a rising talent for the Pirates. He was listed atop the depth chart heading into spring and that is no accident. In fact, it was due in part to his play in 2011, that Mitchell felt comfortable moving Johnson and Falls back to the second level. Pegues should be very motivated this camp and will take another step forward.
Prediction: Pegues will be a clear-cut No. 1 or an “Or” No. 1 coming out of camp.
John Lattimore: A redshirt was applied to what many felt was the gem of last year’s recruiting class. The fast, powerful JUCO transfer DE was expected to come in and start right away, but an injury in spring camp and then a “back-too-soon” re-aggrivation of the injury sidelined him for the season. Throughout the off-season, Coach Jeff Connors used Lattimore as the face of the weight program, lauding his physical gifts. Bigger, stronger, and faster, the expectations is that Lattimore delivers on the promise of a year ago and competes for a DE slot. He is hampered a bit in camp, getting over the leg injury, but should position himself for a run at the job or at least significant role in the rotation in 2012.
Prediction: Lattimore will be an “Or” No. 1 or a No. 2 heading into the fall this year.
Chrishon Rose: Their are high expectations for Rose, who was off to a very nice spring until he was injured and has had to sit out for awhile. Rose redshirted in 2010 (thanks, UV), but demonstrated a great deal of talent during the Thursday scrimmages and on Scout Team. Last season, he got into 7 games and registered 12 tackles (.5 for loss) in 7 games of action. He is expected to be on the DC come the fall. He has the right size at 6-4 and pushing 300 pounds and is aggressive. He is part of the now and future for the position.
Prediction: Expect Rose to be a No. 2 at one of the positions or an “Or” No. 2. He could fall down to a No. 3 slot, but that would mean that a couple of the others mentioned herein were stellar, which is a win for the program.
Terrell Stanley: The young hybrid – a DE that can slide down to NT if needed – will likely see his reps in the spring more at the DE position, but will get some work down at NT. He will work in at DE end this spring mostly to see if he can land a spot in the progression there, and will line-up mostly where the team is most concerned with depth. By all accounts, Stanley is ready and having a good camp thus far showing a knack for crushing the pocket.
Prediction: Stanley could exit camp as an “OR” no. 3 at one of the positions.
Jonathon White: A rising talent at the DE position, White is one of the youngsters who Mitchell expects to make a run this spring. Another perfect build for the position at 6-4, nearing 300 pounds, White is off to a very good camp and with a full camp where he shows consistency, White could be a surprise DC guy come fall.
Prediction: White ends up an “Or” No. 3 coming out of camp.
Jeton Beavers: Beavers has a frame-speed combination that has the coaches drooling over the young DE. At 6-5 and pushing 270, Beavers can easily project over the 300 pound mark with an athleticism that may make him a scary prospect in the near future. He is gifted and will push this spring to make an early case for himself.
Prediction: Beavers will not likely be on the DC, but could slip in at a No. 3. His future, however, is exceptionally bright.
Terry Biles: A walk-on who had a nice spring camp a year ago, even registering a sack in the Purple-Gold game. He will have to have another nice spring to generate enough opportunities to make a run at a spot on the depth chart. At 6-2, 275, he might be able to pack on some more weight via Camp Connors and factor in also at NT.
Prediction: Biles will likely not make the depth chart at DE coming out of camp but could get enough notice to set himself up at either DE or NT down the road.
Darian Harris: A promising walk-on from powerful Pinecrest HS (NC) a year ago, Harris has a nice frame, though he is a bit light right now at under 250 pounds with his 6-4 frame and he is a converted Tight End. That said, with his athleticism, if he can put on some weight and acclimate to the defensive techniques, he could develop into a player at DE during his time in the program.
Prediction: Harris is not likely to make the DC this spring.
Conclusion: Barring injuries, this defensive line appears to have all the ingredients necessary to be a dominant line, reminiscent – albeit with a different style – to the 2008-09 defensive fronts. Brooks, a holdover from those days, is an all-leaguer and NFL talent right in the heart of the front and the depth at DE – presuming those nicked up players are healthy – is enviable. There is a great mix of experience and a good blend of varied talents on the outside which should allow Mitchell a ton of flexibility an should engender some great week-in and week-out battles at the positions.
What say you my Pirates brothers and sisters?