It has been a while since the Pirates boasted the type of linebackers that the current roster boasts. It seems like an eternity – though it really has only been a few years – since Pierre Bell, Nick Johnson, Quentin Cotton, and Jeremy Chambliss were putting the lumber on on opponents and making a mess out of short and middle passing games.
Don’t look now, though, as Brian Mitchell appears to have the mojo back, thanks to what is clearly both a talent upgrade and a youth movement all converging last season into this spring.
And, there are numbers this time around, looking at 2 and 3 deep in each of the four position.
A year ago, the Pirate defense thrived on making the tackles and no fewer than 5 linebackers were among the Top-10 tacklers on the team. This season, the team returns 3 of those players and adds to its ranks Derrell Johnson, the teams 10th top tackler in 2011 when he played defensive end.
Mitchell likes his crew this year and expects a couple of redshirts from a year ago to also push for PT. Those guys were guys that the DC had considered using as true freshman. This is an important point as the program saw one of its top linebackers walk away from the team in rising senior Marke Powell. There will likely be some movement of backers and maybe some others getting a look at linebacker (e.g., Desi Brown at OLB), but for now, this piece will focus on the linebackers on the roster.
So spring will be about guys working on refining their skills, pushing for reps, and for some, getting back into top health.
So let’s talk about the young men who will man the second level this go round:
- Chris Baker (SR-TR)
- Daniel Drake (SR-TR)
- James Craig (SR)
- Ty Holmes (JR-RS)
- Kyle Tudor (JR-RS)
- Derrell Johnson (JR)
- Maurice Falls (SO-RS)
- Jeremy Grove (SO-RS)
- Jake Geary (SO-RS)
- Robert Huckabee (SO)
- Brandon Williams (SO)
- Zeek Bigger (FR-RS)
- Montese Overton (FR-RS)
- Thomas Lehman (FR)
From this group of players, will come the depth chart heading into the fall and claiming spaces on this depth chart will be a war with the speed, physicality and depth of this group. Some of the guys who project as 1s or 2s on the DC may not be fully participating (Grove and Geary, for example) but there are plenty of reps to be won with this group.
A closer look:
Chris Baker – The JUCO transfer came in for the 2011 campaign and surprised a few folks by claiming the starting position at the WILL position where he proved that he could step up from the JUCO level of play. He racked up 32 tackles (3 for loss), 1.5 sacks, 2 QB hurries, and 2 fumble recoveries. He is a very active backer and Mitchell has indicated that he is excited to see what Baker can do now that he has had a year with Coach Connors, bulking up which was something he needed to do. Baker saw his playing time drop off some midway through the season largely due in part to some bad habits creeping into his game, but Mitchell has indicated that Baker’s experience last year should mitigate any of issues Baker contended with during the last campaign.
Prediction: Baker is a player and a good one at the WILL position. He is in a battle right now with Derrell Johnson, who has moved back from DE, but it is likely that he will find himself either as the clear-cut No. 1 at Will or as an “OR” at No. 1 with Johnson. Based on the team’s preference – QB pressure vs pass coverage – Baker may bounce back and forth between No. 1 and No. 2 on the DC.
James Craig: That Craig was put on the DC at SAM going into spring is a signal to the senior that he will get to compete. He has been in the program for awhile and saw action in 9 games a year ago. He is undersized at the position and has a lot of big guns around him competing for the same reps. Still, a senior in his last campaign, Craig no doubt will give it his all this spring and will certainly see himself on the field, helping any way he can.
Prediction: It is not likely that Craig will be on the DC at the end of spring…too much talent around him.
Derrell Johnson: One of the biggest moves of spring camp, Johnson was already one of the best defensive players on the unit and he has been moved off of the defensive line back to the WILL slot. This move, most certainly, was not done to see him end up down on the DC. With the depth very good at DE, Mitchell is looking to Johnson to be a force on the outside in terms of pass rushing and containment. Johnson gets after it big-time and should do well in the move. A year ago, he piled up 39 tackles (5.5 for loss), with 3 sacks, 3 QB hurries and 3 forced fumbles. Big, strong, and fast, Johnson will battle for the top slot.
Prediction: Johnson will use spring to adjust to playing on two feet and learning the nuances of the pass coverage requirements. Once he gets that down, expect him to be atop of the DC at the WILL position or be a solid “OR” number one.
Maurice Falls: Like Johnson, Falls shifted from Defensive End to OLB and is being given the opportunity to win the SAM position. With Jake Geary limited in his spring action, Falls – who brings a classic OLB build to the position – will get a ton of reps to acclimate to the change. In 2011, Falls recorded 8 tackles (2 for loss), and 2 sacks in 10 games as a reserve DE.
Prediction: It is a good situation for Falls who will get a healthy push from freshman Montese Overton at the SAM position and will then get a big battle from Geary upon his return. Expect Falls to be a solid No. 2 or an “OR” no. 1 coming out of camp.
Jake Geary: Geary was a beast toward the end of the season in 2011, emerging as ready for the WILL position. A year ago, he registered 29 tackles (5 for loss), 2 QB hurries, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He is nursing an injury and will not be full-on for camp, but he will be in the mix for a DC spot at the WILL position or maybe even move over to SAM. Either way, Geary is a player and will get plenty of game reps in 2012.
Prediction: Geary will compete for a No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 slot in the DC, but rest assured, a healthy Geary will get plenty of game reps.
Montese Overton: Of all the players brought in a year ago on the defense, Mitchell had the hardest time keeping a redshirt on Overton. Polished even as a freshman, the speed backer – one of the fastest players on the team – has all the tools you want to play the SAM position and is competitive. He will get plenty of reps in the spring to impress the coaches further and he is expected to earn PT this season.
Prediction: Overton will impress in camp and will likely come out of spring as a clear No. 2 at SAM and enter the fall pushing for the top job, barring any player movement. He is a good one.
Robert Huckabee: Though listed as an ILB/OLB candidate, I am putting him at OLB based on his play at Hoggard HS a couple of years ago. He may be tracking at ILB, but for now, he probably will compete better at OLB as he has a good ability to get pressure on the QB. With good size at 6-3, 225, Huckabee could surprise. He earned a letter on special teams a year ago and should expect to see more action there in 2012.
Prediction: While he may not land on the DC this spring, he should get plenty of reps in the spring to position himself going forward.
Thomas Lehman: The 6-5, 245 pound walk-on was a good defensive end during HS at Apex High and as a successful field athlete, you have to think he has the athleticism to play outside in the mold of a power rusher. In the spring, he may not get a ton of reps but if he makes the most of each one, he might become part of the discussion.
Prediction: Lehman will need to max his reps and make a name on special teams to become part of the conversation heading into the season.
Daniel Drake: While Jeremy Grove was garnering All-America status, Drake was quietly developing into a very steady, reliable, and physical inside backer. The transfer from Marshall fought off a medical condition and just about everything else to lock down one of the MIKE positions for most of the year. He finished third on the team in tackles with 74 (1.5 for loss), a sack and a QB hurry. Unsung, unselfish, and a consistent plugger, Drake can add “leader” to his role in 2012. Expect Drake to battle big-time to keep his starting role. If he slips in the DC, it won’t matter…he is a big part of this defense and will be a key player this season.
Prediction: Drake will end camp as a clear-cut No. 1 or an “OR” No. 1 at one of the MIKE inside positions.
Ty Holmes: The only thing that kept Ty Holmes off the field in 2011, was that he happened to be playing behind an All-America in Grove. Mitchell loves Holmes and expects him to be a big factor this year. With Grove out for spring, Holmes will get a ton of the reps at the other MIKE spot opposite Drake. He will try and fend off the youngster in Zeek Bigger and try to position himself to give Grove a run for his money in the fall.
Prediction: Holmes finishes camp as the No. 1 at the MIKE he is fighting for or may be listed as an “OR” if they list Grove. Holmes may not surpass Grove, but he will be as good as a No. 2 that any team can hope for.
Kyle Tudor: Though he missed four games, Tudor finished the season like gangbusters, showing everyone why he was held in high regard heading into the 2011 season. He finished 6th among tacklers a year ago (3rd among LBs) with 58 tackles (1.5 for loss), a sack, a PBU, 2 QB hurries, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. As his numbers indicate, Tudor is a very active linebacker who gets in on the play. He will be on a mission in the spring looking to unseat Drake at one of the MIKE spots. He has the ability to win that battle, which means the Pirates will be nice and deep at that position.
Prediction: Tudor comes out of camp listed as an “OR” No. 1 or a clear cut No. 2. He and Drake give the Pirates basically two No. 1s at the position.
Jeremy Grove: Though he will not fully participate in spring camp, Grove is the unquestioned top linebacker in the unit. A freshman All-America cut from the mold of many past ECU inside backers, Grove will have immense pressure to deliver again. He will likely make good on the demand because he is fundamentally sound. He gets to the football and makes tackles. He lead the team a year ago with 122 stops (3.5 for loss) to go along with a sack, 2 PBUs, and 5 QB hurries. Despite being just a Sophomore, he is also a leader on the unit and on the defense.
Prediction: Grove will be the top MIKE backer of the unit in the fall and will be listed on the depth chart in that position whether or not it is published that way or not. Injuries aside, he is expected to repeat his efforts from 2011.
Brandon Williams: A year ago, as a true freshman, Williams saw his redshirt lifted and himself playing against Houston. With the lifting of his redshirt Williams saw action as a special teams player and reserve backer and was impressive enough for Mitchell to seat him on the depth chart at one of the MIKE positions to battle Tudor and Drake this spring. He posted 9 tackles a year ago with one tackle for loss. He is a big, quick backer and is motivated after gaining some measure of experience in 2011. Expect Williams to improve a great deal in the spring and position himself for more PT at backer in 2012.
Prediction: Williams will stay on the DC and likely it will be as the No. 3 behind Drake and Tudor which is meaningful as it sets him up for progression in his junior and senior seasons.
Zeek Bigger:One of Mitchell’s young backers who he considered playing as a true frosh a year ago. Though a little undersized, he is a very good athlete and disciplined tackler. He was put on the DC for spring while Grove heals and these reps will be priceless for Bigger who will seek to earn a few game reps in 2012.
Prediction: Bigger will likely end up at the No. 3 slot behind Grove and Holmes at the MIKE backer position opposite Drake/Tudor/Williams. This is will be a good thing for Bigger whose primary goal in 2012 is to get PT any way he can.