While there will be a lot of press and interest in the evolution of the ECU offense in the post Shane Carden-Justin Hardy-Lincoln Riley era, quietly the ECU defense continues to fine tune and improve. While they may not steal headlines, the group – under DC Rick Smith’s guidance – has established a reputation for being a solid, if not very good, defensive unit and one that finds a way to address its deficiencies each season. And, while the ECU D finished ranked 37th in Total Defense in 2014-15 – a drop from 24th at the end of the 2013-14 season – they did so having to re-tool the secondary and upping the schedule both OOC and in the American.
With an offense that put up ~7,000 yards of offense, used to pushing play counts to 100 regularly, that the defense has been able to be within the top 40 two years running is an astounding testament to the players and the coaching at ECU.
Still, the losses are considerable on the defensive side of the ball. Each level of the defense is taking a hit in the starting line-up, starting with Big Terry Williams at nose tackle and his linemate Chrishon Rose on the defensive line. Stud linebackers Brandon Williams and Maurice Falls also move on and secondary stalwarts Lamar Ivey and Detric Allen have completed eligibility. Terry Williams and Maurice Falls both are expected to make runs at a NFL roster positions and Brandon Williams was not only an under-rated LB, he also was a leader in the middle of the unit. However, there is a strong core returning and Smith has shown a penchant since his return to Greenville, for patching the holes and pushing along talent.
With this in mind, let’s talk about the defensive line a bit.
Back drop: There is no way around the fact that losing Terry Williams inside and Chrishon Rose who played both DE and DT, immediately puts the defensive line in rebuild mode. While the Swamp Monster is well-known for his ability to impact games and alter opposing offensive strategies, Rose was also a pretty stalwart player, at times filling in for Williams when he was not in the line-up. The returning experience on the D-Line is a mixed bag with some surprising studs and some steady workers. The success of this group really depends on two big “ifs.”
First, will Terrell Stanley return and if so, will he be the Stanley that was a veritable all-star for the Pirates in 2013-14? And second, can some of the young guys who got their feet wet this past year, be able to elevate their games by Fall?
More than most places on the field, the ability to rotate fresh, effective D-Lineman is critical for success on D in this age of fast-moving offenses. ECU has had the ability to march out depth in this position over the last two seasons, but going into this season, it seems to be more of a concern – at this juncture. It would have been a great get for ECU if they could have landed a JUCO or two on the DL but that did not happen, though there could be some help via transfers but that is not known at the moment. The good news is that Pirates star and current D-Line coach Mark Yellock has proven to be both an effective evaluator of talent, recruiter and developer of talent for the Pirates.
Let’s take a look at the men who will battle for jobs in the ECU trench in 2015-16:
Likely starters (keeping in mind that some guys play DE/DT):
Defensive End: Johnathon White (RS-SR): The 6-4, 292 pounder has quietly asserted himself in the starting role at one of the DE positions. Over the last two seasons, he has played in 25 games (including 8 starts). During that time, he has made 31 tackles (4 1/2 for loss) a 1/2 sack, an INT, 6 QBHs, 2 pass deflections and a forced fumble. He has enough experience in the system that he shouldn’t have any problems being a very solid, dependable starting DE on one side of the line.
- Nose Tackle: K’Hadree Hooker (TR-JR): Hooker’s numbers steadily climbed through the season, culminating in his first, coming start against Florida in the bowl game to cap the season. At 6-1, 300 pounds with quickness, he is remarkably similar to Williams in his potential to disrupt in the middle of the defensive line. He was productive in the 12 games he played in (15 tackles, a blocked kick and 2 QBHs). Where he and Williams differ – mostly in shear mass – is why depth is going to be a huge factor for the Pirates who have become accustomed to having dominant nose tackles in the middle of the D. Hooker could become that, but his back-ups will see a ton of meaningful downs as well.
- Defensive End: Fred Presley (RS-JR): If there is a remarkable story on the defense over the past two years, it would be the rise of Fred Presley from no-name walk-on to scholarship player to difference maker in 2014. His size was never a question mark – he is 6-3, 300 pounds – but his technique and stamina were. He has cleared those hurdles well and his numbers bear out a more than solid player. Consider that he has seen action in 24 games at both DE and NT and in 2014-15, he logged 5 starts and piled up 35 tackles (8 for loss), 3 QBHs, a fumble recovery and count em – 6 sacks. Not bad for a guy who sort of just showed up for the Pirates wanting to play. He is on track to step right into the full-time starting role but also has the ability to move down into the job at NT should it be needed.
- Terrell Stanley (RS-SR): Before the car crash last winter, just about everyone in the American Conference was looking a Stanley and seeing a strong candidate for All-League honors. The 6-2, 266 pounder was coming off a season where he notched 13 starts and had piled up 46 tackles (10 for loss) and a stellar 7 sacks. When Stanley’s injuries sidelined him for the year, the question shifted from his projected stardom to whether or not he would be able to play football again. And if so, would he be the player he was before the accident. There hasn’t been a lot detail as to how healthy he is – football wise – so to pencil him in as a starter, picking up where he left off may not be the prudent approach to expectations. That said, if Stanley is anything like he was prior to the injury, then the ECU D Line situation goes from iffy to a lot more solid than can be projected today. He could easily move into a starting DE role, allowing Presley to move down to NT and creating experienced depth with Hooker and Demetri McGill in the interior. But there are a lot of questions that won’t begin being answered till Spring.
Demetri McGill (JR): Two seasons ago, McGill was too good to apply a RS but last season, he saw himself slip in the DC behind Hooker and also Damage Bailey. Still McGill has experience. The 6-1, 310 pound NT has played in 19 games in the past two seasons (including a start). He needs to go into Spring on a mission to regain the footing he lost in 2014-15. He has ability and experience and frankly, the Pirates need him to advance his game if they hope to have the quality depth needed to compete in the AAC.
The Question Marks:
Beyond the group above, everything else on the ECU defensive line is speculative based on projection of talent rather than true on the field experience. The Pirates have seen player after player emerge from this spot into the line-up and at times straight to the top of the DC. History has me cautiously optimistic. But, if the Pirates do not get a few from this group to prove they belong on the field in games, there could be a precipitous drop off in the defensive prowess ECU has demonstrated of late.
Randall Anderson (RS-SO): The defensive coaching staff made no bones last year about the fact that they believe Anderson – a 6-4, 254 pounder – is a star potential player. There was hope that he would fight his way to a depth chart spot this season, but it did not materialize. Still, the transfer from Fork Union is considered a guy with nothing but upside and with the ECU rotation last season solid in the trenches, his number may not have been called, but the staff is no less excited about him. Anderson, in this group, is the guy most likely to burst onto the scene in 2015-16.
- Demage Bailey (RS-SO): Half full or half empty? The great news is that 6-5, 250 pound Bailey was not only too good to redshirt, but also pushed his way into the line-up for 3 games, and earned primary back-up role at nose tackle for the game against Florida. He is versatile, able to line up at NT or DE, which helps on the depth front and he is a guy who plays mean and wants a spot on the DC. On the other hand, he has only seen action in 3 games – having to miss a lot of the season nursing an injury – but still, his 3 games make him one of the more experienced guys in this group of potential risers.
- Mike Myers (RS-SO): Another up and comer who saw action in 4 games (made 3 tackles) at NT in 2014-15. He is a very strong young player and at 6-0, 288 is on track to be another one of those low-center-of-gravity, maulers in the middle. He had to miss spring a year ago with a injury that also hampered his ability to maximize his time in the weight room, so he is playing catch up from a strength perspective. His limited experience is helpful, but is not enough to change the fact that he is young and unproven.
- Shaun James (RS-FR): The 6-4, 235 pounder has a frame to pack on some weight, which he will have to do if he hopes to make a run at spot on the DC. He can play DE and has good skills at that position in both the ability to contain the edge and apply pressure on the backfield. He may also find himself inside, but there appears to be enough bodies competing at NT/DT that James may have a good shot to see his first action at DE. Too much of an unknown now to really say where he will fall in the future, but for now, his best shot appears on the end.
- Other DLs on the roster: Isaiah King (SO) 6-1, 275 pounds – a walk-on who caught on in August of 2014 and has yet to relinquish his roster spot;KyronSpeller (FR) – 6-1, 235 pounds – asignee from last year whose enthusiasm is contagious. He wanted so badly to be a Pirate, the guy who goes by “Spaz” did the work to clear up his eligibility and is happy to be on the roster. Tough player too, whose future is in the future;Markel Winters (RS-FR) – 6-3, 226 pounder who is listed asan OLB/DL on the roster. He was an edge specialist in HS and could be tracking in the DE position. Co-listed no doubtdo to depth concerns. Certainly a guy to watch at DE.
Early Call: OK…I am going to go with the optimistic approach here. Let’s say that Stanley returns to the line-up picking up where he left off in the 2013-14 season. IF that is the case, the front three starters could be Stanley, Presley, White. That three would be as good and productive as any in the American and solid relative to any in the country, IMO. But, we know the key is not the starting three, but beyond them. Hooker and McGill certainly have enough experience to be formidable back-ups or starters if need be, but both show the most skill at NT. If Hooker can demonstrate that he is a full-time starter type, then Presley could move back to end giving the Pirates 3-quality DE starters. That would leave the NT position looking like Hooker, McGill and perhaps Bailey and Myers. If Anderson is the stud the coaches think he is, then he would round out the DE rotation.
NEXT POST: Despite losing the Lightning on defense (Brandon Williams), the Thunder still returns at the linebacker position. There is talent, but is there enough. The linebacking unit is next up in this way-too-early-look at ECU football 2015-16.