To Defense or Not to Defense? That is the ECU Question for 2018-19

The old adage goes, “Defense wins championships.” At ECU this season, it could read, “Defense determines survival.”

There is no way around it, the whole season’s success or failure proposition rests squarely on the defense, arguably the very worst in the entire nation a year ago. Yes, the offense didn’t help the defense, turning the ball over, failing in the red zone, and inability to sustain drives, but that aside, the Pirates were anemic on defense. Couldn’t stop the run, couldn’t stop the pass, couldn’t even slow down teams. Blowout losses were the norm not the exception. Did I mention how bad we were?

And, like the offense, the defensive unit looked lost, unprepared, incapable of adjustment. A lot looked like Xs and Os, too.

So, what does this season hold for us Defensively?

IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?

For me, I am looking for a pulse…faint works just fine. Some obvious signs…even a small nugget that shows signs of life in the defensive unit. I do not expect a bowl game. I do not expect a winning season. I do expect to come off life support though.

If there has ever been a Coach so welcomed home to ECU as new Defensive Coordinator Coach David Blackwell, I’m not sure who that guy would be. High hopes hanging on Coach Blackwell to triage the defense and put what guys we have in position to be as good as their potential allows.

Blackwell 2

The Doctor is In: Blackwell certainly has the attention of his players and getting them all on the same page was one of the ECU alum’s primary objectives.

While it is nice that he is a former Pirate…gets the culture inside and out…what is more important to is that he has a pedigree and an attitude that is sorely needed here.

Sadly, ECU has been at this very place before…an ugly place where our defense truly could be no worse in the college football landscape.

The year was 1993.

The Pirates in 1992 fielded a defense that finished the season 105th in total defense (out of 107 teams), virtually what we are looking at heading into this season. In ’92, we were 98th in passing D, 106th in rushing D and 101st in scoring defense.

In came Larry Coyer in 1993 tasked with turning around the defense — the same task Coach Blackwell has ahead of him. With virtually the same personnel back for ECU from the ’92 campaign, Coyer was able to produce the country’s 47th best total defense.

Now, the offense on the 1993 team was not good, so the Pirates still did not produce a huge turnaround in the win-column, but to put that one-year defensive improvement into perspective, consider that the 2008 ECU defense was 41st in total defense and the 2009 edition was 71st and the Pirates won two league championships with offenses that were predictable, conservative, and not known for being able to score a ton of points each time out.

The  point is, Coyer showed that you can, indeed, turn things around drastically in one off-season. And, there is nowhere left to go for ECU other than up.

A larger point is, is that with a middle of the pack defense, you can win a lot football games at ECU…ask the 2008 and 2009 teams…they will tell you.

It is my hope, Coach Blackwell can channel the Coyer effect in 2018. There is a lot of evidence out there to believe he can turn it around with seven starters back. The N&O ran a very good interview with the new DC and it validates every fan out there that when watching the games were scratching their heads week in and week out.

Some very telling comments from that interview:

“Sometimes what looks like a lack of effort is really a confused player. Confused players don’t play fast.”

“Confidence comes with knowledge. The first thing they’ve got to understand is what we’re asking. When they spew out things I’m telling them word for word, then we know we’re on the right page.”

“Whether you’re a defensive lineman, linebacker or defensive back, you’ve got to know your position and what the other guys are doing. The biggest problem they had last year is the guys didn’t believe in what they were doing.”

His Jacksonville State U defenses were awesome. Take a look at what attacking look like when done right in the video below (which focuses on a DB, but shows some nice views of what sound D looks like):

 

Blackwell KNOWS what needs to be done and this is a very heartening to this fan.

FEELING PRESSURE TO APPLY PRESSURE

It is widely understood in football that the hardest athletes to find are defensive linemen. There are not a lot of studs out there and they are subjects of the fiercest recruiting battles. In short, it is very hard for a school like ECU to land the kind of athletes that can make a huge difference up front.

Futrell _ potential

Will the DL potential be realized in 2018. Futrell (No. 44) is considered a break-out player for the Pirates, but will he and his mates truly break out?

Still, though, our history indicates that the right coaches can get the right guys to play at the right level. Rod Coleman, C.J. Wilson, Linval Joseph, Jay Ross, Scottie Robinson, Mic’hael Brooks, Demetri McGill, Terry Williams…to name a few, all came through the ECU turnstile with quite a few getting extended time in the NFL and CFL.

That said, pressure on the quarterback and brutality in the trenches has not been evident in the last few seasons and must be conjured back up here, NOW, if we hope to have a decent season. Perhaps there are a few guys on the roster who have untapped potential. Clearly, defensive end Kiante Anderson from last year’s roster was good enough to turn a few heads in the NFL so perhaps there is talent to be molded, but Blackwell and his staff will have to be fast workers to see a turnaround this season.

Why be excited? Coach Blackwell doesn’t sugar coat anything. He broke down what is needed and is working to implement it. The front line guys all appear to have the measurables to be a solid front. Junior Kendall Futrell is healthy which is a big plus. The defensive end – the Bandit in the 3-4 alignment – has always had the wow factor athletically but has not been healthy enough over his early seasons to really put it together on the field. If how you practice indicates how you play, then Futrell above all other defensive linemen appears primed for a breakout, chiefly in the pass-rushing phase of the game. He will be moved around to exploit math ups. Alex Turner at nose is not built like the Swamp Monster or McGill – shorter and wider – but carries that same crazy strength that his predecessors had. If you want a comparison to a previous standout at the nose position, think more like Mic’hael Brooks – a little taller, a little lighter than others at Nose. On paper, he and Jalen Price, at Tackle, could pair up to make for a nice starting pair. On the other end, walk-on to scholly DE  Nate Harvey has earned his chance to be the guy opposite Futrell, and he brings with it the chip that a Pirate should carry. Some previous walk-ons have done pretty well here (you listening Justin Hardy?). And though not really tested yet, Chance Purvis looks like he could be a solid  DE position while. Sophomore Raequan Purvis will back at NT and Shaun James, a senior, at the Tackle position.

Incremental improvement up front should allow this group to improve on last season’s paltry 11 total sacks. Success wold simply be an improvement on this number.

The Downer. If the names listed above don’t sound all that familiar to you, you are not alone. Save Kiante Anderson – now graduated – from last year, the line and their performance was about as memorable and exciting as watching white paint dry on a backyard fence. ECU has no name on its roster that opponents will be game-planning for (at least at this moment) and more concerning is that the coffers are very thin at this position due to recruit class attrition. Little experience and youth make up the balance of  those who will have to step up this season up front. In short, we are THIN up front and can ill-afford an injury or issue there. Pressure must be found and the pressure to find who will apply pressure I am sure is weighing heavy on Blackwell’s shoulders. No pressure up front, forget it about how good you are at linebacker and defensive back.

STRENGTH IN THE MIDDLE OF THE D

Not an indictment about our linebackers this season, but none made this list going into the season. That said, Blackwell has consistently indicated that he is happy with the line-backing corps, referring to them as strong and deep and this is relieving to hear.

Tillman hitting

Would be nice to see more tackling like this stick by Tillman this year.

By most accounts, sophomore Aaron Ramseur has stood out among a talented group and will likely be the starter at the WILL (weakside) backer spot. He was very good a year ago as a freshman and just has that sort of…special look and feel to how he plays. Could be very good one before the end of this time at ECU. At MIKE (middle) linebacker, fellow sophomore Bruce Bivens continues the youth movement at LB. More importantly for the Pirates, the two guys coming off the bench may be what makes Blackwell so happy with what he has in seniors Cannon Gibbs at the MIKE and Ray Tillman at the WILL. Both backers are starter-caliber and both are seniors bringing loads of experience.

Why be excited? The linebacking corps is the defensive equivalent to the WR corps on offense. They are talented and deep and Blackwell can mix and match the 1s and 2s based on opponents and situational needs. If there is to be a salve for what happened last season, then it will be this group that leads the turnaround. This group is good and are the central leaders on this defense. They will push this unit to continuously improve and fight to the end.

The Downer. The ultimate success of the linebacking corps is in the hands of the defensive line. If the DL cannot hold its own mano-a-mano, this unit could look awfully bad despite the talent. Likewise, if the back-end units are not capable in coverage, the same impact will be felt in the middle of the D.

IN THE FRAME THIS SEASON?

As a displaced Pirate up in Pennsylvania, I unfortunately watch more games on television than I do in person. And one observation that I have made over the past two seasons is that when it comes to pass coverage, there were simply too many times when on the TV at least, an opponent’s receiver would be in the frame WITHOUT a single ECU defensive back even in the picture. It’s crazy…how can that even happen? Not just the DBs but the LBs too…it was ugly.

Case in point:

Wide open

This guy from UCF is, well, open. Worse, the other UCF player is also, well, open, if the QB wanted to go over the top to the corner. Kind of hard to get a stop with this type of coverage.

Now, this could be related to the lack of pressure up front, but IMO, it is more reflective of the Xs and Os. When you are giving up 50 points a game, the fear of getting beat deep should simply not exist. Non-existent coverage = no INTs which means that you have to be about perfect to win a ballgame.

If Coach Blackwell’s scheme is truly attacking by nature, then the expectation would be to see some serious, physical man on man on the corners and there is depth and experience on the roster that should allow for that.

Then, perhaps we see more of this type of coverage (thanks to former ECU Pirate Josh Hawkins):

Starting there, at this point in their careers, corners Corey Seargent and Colby Gore on paper could be one of the better corner tandems in the AAC and if they can play to their potential and experience levels, then we may very well see coverage that look like the Hawkins’ cuts above. Seargent (a senior) and Gore (a junior) know each other well and both appear to be legit contenders in their own rights for AAC honors.

 

Starting there, at this point in their careers, corners Corey Seargent and Colby Gore on paper could be one of the better corner tandems in the AAC and if they can play to their potential and experience levels, then we may very well see coverage that look like the Hawkins’ cuts above. Seargent (a senior) and Gore (a junior) know each other well and both appear to be legit contenders in their own rights for AAC honors.

 

gore in coverage 2 (2)

Gore (pictured) and Seargent are very capable cover corners.

Starting there, at this point in their careers, corners Corey Seargent and Colby Gore on paper could be one of the better corner tandems in the AAC and if they can play to their potential and experience levels, then we may very well see coverage that look like the Hawkins’ cuts above. Seargent (a senior) and Gore (a junior) know each other well and both appear to be legit contenders in their own rights for AAC honors.

Schematic changes could impact – positively – the entire defense. With five guys in the backend, the nickel back becomes a pivotal piece of turning the defensive fortunes around. Junior Tim Irvin should man this key spot for the Pirates this season, bringing defensive back instincts and skills with a linebacker mentality, his play (and that of the position) may well spell success / failure for the D. The upside to Irvin is when he is on the field, you can’t miss him…emotional and physical and talented and a leader. However, keeping him on the field has been difficult to this point in his ECU career as he has dealt with injuries. Fortunately, senior Devon Sutton has strengthened his readiness and could win the position on his own merit and the very least provide a good back-up to Irvin should the battle go as expected.

Deep for the Pirates this season at Strong Safety is senior Marcus Holton Jr., a Georgia Military product who came in 2016. Blackwell has indicated that Holton’s quick grasp of the schematic changes has earned him the top billing, though he doesn’t bring in a whole lot of logged snaps as a Pirate. At the FS position, true sophomore Davondre Robinson appears to have parlayed a respectable freshman campaign into a starting role in 2018-19, though at the time of this writing, he was battling tightly with freshman Nolan Johnson, an equally talented but untested youngster. Robinson has a lot of potential and showed himself to be an asset in the run stopping department. He and Holton represent the potential weaker links (relatively) in the secondary, but are surrounded by veterans and talent at the corners and at nickel.

Why to be excited? Blackwell. Say again, Blackwell. What we will not see this season is a defense that looks confused, out of alignment, and fundamentally unsound. Whether or not the defense is ascends or simply rebounds from hitting rock bottom, they will look like a disciplined and fundamentally sound set of players. Blackwell brings true Xs and Os to the table and has been here before in terms of righting a ship. The defense will almost certainly post better statistical numbers and remember, they don’t have to jump to a top-10 status to make a profound difference in the W-L column. Middle of the pack is usually good enough at ECU. Blackwell is instilling the right things and if it translates even part way this season, the results could be dramatic (think, at least no blowout losses).

The Downer. We are thin up front. No matter how good your coverage guys are, there are limits to how long they can cover. No matter how experienced your linebackers are, they can’t tackle if they are clogged up by OLs. The ECU defensive line carries the most pressure for the D this season and they have a few chambers empty in the gun. They will have to stay healthy and overachieve this year to make things better defensively. Further, if we cannot generate sacks and turnovers (something we have not done well in Coach Mo’s young tenure, we will not improve enough to make a difference.

IN SUMMARY

It is possible. Coach Blackwell could conceivably turn the defense around in one off-season. We have seen it here before. They will be more sound and will actually look like a real college defense this season and based on where they statistically were last season, we will rebound. To what extent is the key.

Perhaps we should set our expectations accordingly in defining success fairly for this unit.

Here are some of the things I am looking to see…some indications of improvement:

  • Tolerable losses. A score or two rather than 5 scores;
  • Maintaining competition into the late stages of the game rather than games being decided by half-time;
  • Flip the script on the Turnover Margin. In 2016, we were -16 and last season -10 which included a whopping 28 INTs by our O. While the D cannot control what the offense does in giving the ball away, they can fundamentally attack the ball and generate takeaways. It is a core fundamental for Blackwell’s defensive scheme. Getting to +/- 1 this season would be a monumental step forward and to see the D contribute to the margin would be huge;
  • Adjustments. Honestly, for two seasons now, it has been hard to identify any significant in-game and post-half-time adjustments being made defensively (offensively, too). Sure, there were personnel changes, but schematically, it wasn’t apparent. Even an adjustment that fails is better than what we have seen in the last two seasons;
  • Uptick in the number of sacks generated. Our D has produced just 19 sacks in the past two years…horrible. Not even one a game. Sacks indicate pressure. No pressure indicates lots of completions and  hence, big numbers/lopsided losses. An improvement to even 1.5 sacks a game would be something of note;
  • Turnovers and sacks lead to short fields for the offense. Early on particularly this will be important so to see the defense turn a short field over to the offense will be a great measuring stick; and
  • Become notably proficient against at least one phase of the game. Force teams to be lopsided in pass or run play calling.

Mostly, I want to see some honest swagger from out team. Not false bravado. Not a pack of paper lions. Displace the current reputation with one of being a tough out. Bad ass hombres who no matter the score, the opponents leave with their share of bumps, bruises, and a healthy dose of respect. This would be a great step forward in 2018.

Honestly, I am not bullish on our prospects for a turnaround this season, at least not one that will bring fans back this season. I am looking for the small, incremental tick forward…yes, a pulse read, a positive or three that indicates that the program is moving forward. I don’t blame the fans for seeing what else is out there to do on weekends…it has been gut-wrenching to watch the last two seasons.

With that type of defensive turnaround, I would expect to see games lost to be more along a touchdown here, a field goal there, and a two score loss be tantamount to a “blowout” loss in a new reality. Honestly…4-8 with no blowout losses to me would be massive progress…the type of progress that allows Coach Mo to coach another season even failing to meet his post-season prediction.

As always, love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this season, the defense, the upcoming game. Please share.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “To Defense or Not to Defense? That is the ECU Question for 2018-19

  1. Ed Keller

    Good run down. Makes me think I should start paying attention again after Coach Mo is gone. As I read between the lines, it seems he is learning (slowly) at our expense.

    • So good to hear from you Ed. Slowly is such an accurate term. I feel like he has had to learn things that a first year HC should already know. But, should a miracle ensue tonight, I will support.

      Best to you Ed.

      Go Pirates!

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