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Focusing on Fall Camp…Defensive Battles will Reveal Pirates Rebuild Approach

Note: If you were looking for thoughts about ECU’s Offensive Battles this fall, go here.

Even in those heyday years for the Pirates, ECU football was never synonymous with DEFENSE.

Yes, the program has had its moments and certainly had its players, but in the era of spread-em-out and sling-the-ball-around football, the Pirates have never been known for their Defense. In the big-time football era, the closest I think we may have come was during Skip Holtz tenure at ECU. His teams had solid D and by ECU’s standards, had a high-caliber defensive line.

The good news for ECU is that when the offense is operating like a typical Pirates offense, the defense need only be middle of the pack for the team to win a lot of football games. Unfortunately, under the previous staff, the ECU defense has been among the worst in the country and at one point, held down the cellar of college football.

Last season, the D got a shot in the arm with the one-year stint served by former ECU football player David Blackwell who managed to at least remind the kids what the basics of defense require…you know, starting out it right place, running to the right place, wrapping up on tackles and repeat. The Defense climbed out of the basement, but with an offense so vanilla and lacking sustained drives, the gains ebbed by the end of the season and we finished trending downward again.

New Head Coach, new hope for a change in direction for the Defense and it will have to start with the guys lining  up this year. This season’s group has one primary directive IMO and that is to be the bedrock for future defenses. Forget stats for now and establish the right way to do things. Success will follow.

Bob Trott_DC
Coach Trott has his work cut out for him.

Defensively, DC Bob Trott defenses have been headlined by aggressiveness and a penchant for creating turnovers (something the Pirates have become very poor at doing) and for total defense success. To even start the turnaround, it would seem to me that this Fall, the battles will be about identifying the guys who have the potential to play his defense the way it is designed rather than the best skilled players. To be clear, nobody has a guaranteed job yet.

Let’s take a look at the battles that will rage this Fall on the defensive side of the football.

Defensive Ends

Setting the Stage: This group has a lot of question marks largely because of the departure of Nate Harvey, who was in the top 5 in the country in sacks and tackles for loss in 2018. Harvey understood how to get in the backfield and play off of the strength of the defensive line (the interior guys). With Harvey gone, there is no heir apparent. There had been a lot of hype around Kendall Futrell two years ago and ahead of last season, but he did not explode onto the scene in the way that Harvey did. Futrell definitely is the veteran in the group, but what is not apparent yet is how the 4-2-5 base defense impacts the DE role. Based on the players in this group, the requirements still appear to be edge rushing, quick containment and edge setting rather than being bulky run-stoppers. Vying currently – based on spring – for action this year are also Chance Purvis (JR), Michael Swift (JR), Chandon Hickerson (JR), Trey Love (FR-RS), and Dorian Hardy (FR-RS). From the looks of things, the battles really are squaring Futrell and Hickerson for one edge spot and Purvis and Swift for the other.

Kendall Futrell_DEs
Futrell needs to step into the role of mayhem maker ala Nate Harvey in ’18

Tipping the Scale: While Hickerson is currently listed atop the DC over Futrell going into camp, it is hard not to expect that Futrell is due his break out year…one that has been hyped since his sophomore season. He returns as the most game experienced DE and the leading sack maker on the team having registered 4.0 a year ago and is currently considered fully healthy. I would be surprised if Futrell is not atop the DC by end of camp (barring injury)…he has too much talent and experience not to be. Look for him to edge by a game and capable Hickerson. On the other side, Purvis really holds the cards in his battle to maintain top position on the DC. He got into 10 games last season and looked the part in the spring. Despite a great camp by the youngster Love, who has demonstrated quickly the value of understanding what the new system requires, Purvis should hold the spot simply on the basis of game reps and maturity. The bigger battle may be Love trying to hold off Swift for the primary back-up role.

Likely Outcome: If the ECU defense expects to have pressure off the edge, Futrell will have to win the battle this fall and I expect he will. On the other side, Purvis, but keep an eye during the season on Love’s playing time as he has a good grasp of the system already.

Group Think: This position group needs the young guys to accelerate development so that true depth can exist. While not as thin a group as the interior line group is, there is not a whole lot of depth here currently. Hardy has nice potential and incoming freshmen Rick D’Abreu and Immanuel Hickman both had solid edge numbers in HS so there are some guys who could fill out the room and DC.

Defensive Tackles

Setting the Stage: This could possibly be the must extreme position group on the team. On one end of the spectrum there are high talent veterans in Alex Turner (SR) and Jalen Price (SR) and then…you have a host of unknowns and inexperienced players. This unit was hit hard by the loss of Raequan Purvis who had to give up football due to a medical condition disqualifying him from further participation. His loss created an even more stark gap between experience and potential. Younger guys will have to press into play earlier than maybe needed to spell the frontline guys. JUCO transfer Hozey Haji-Badri was brought in for immediate help and then there is a cadre of youngsters like D’Angelo McKinnie (SO), Damir Faison (FR-RS), Chandler Medeiros (FR-RS) and incoming freshman Keziah Everett.

Alex Turner_DL
Influencer on D…Turner is the face and leader of the Pirate Defense.

Tipping the Scale: In reality, there is less competition for the top spots and more competition for the reserve spots. Turner and Price are the starters and rightly so, but it will be interesting to see how Haji-Badri adjusts to top level football and how McKinnie progresses. McKinnie was a tight end last year but relocated to his normal position this spring. He is very athletic and strong and will benefit greatly from mentoring under Turner as a back-up.

Likely Outcome: Turner at one DT and Price at the other. McKinnie behind Turner and Haji-Badri behind Price.

Group Think: This unit benefits from having team leader and face of the program in Turner as its top player. His mentorship will be critical for this unit to develop depth in quick order. He and Price need to stay healthy to allow the rest of the group to fill in the experience gap. Everett and Faison could be the future of the positional group.


Setting the Stage:  In the Pirates new 4-2-5 scheme there are basically two LB postions with the traditional MLB slot (or “Mike” if you will) and the WLB slot (the “Will”). The Pirates  have some good athletes to man these positions. Depth at the MLB and WLB positions should be ok and if some of the young guys come in ready to play, then the position as a group should be a strength – providing that what Coach Houston recently stated in a radio interview about the drastic improvement in tackling technique remains consistent. Leading the group is Aaron Ramseur (JR) and Bruce Bivens (JR) followed by Xavier Smith (SO) who was flipped to TE a year ago but has returned to his natural position on defense. Rounding out the competition are Myles Berry (SO) and Delvontae Harris (SO), both of whom had scant playing time in 2018. Other LBs on the roster include JUCO Transfer Damani Harrison (JR), Heath Parker (FR-RS), and true freshman Chad Stephens (6-0, 225) will also compete for playing time.

Aaron Ramseur_ILBs
Leader of the Corps…Ramseur brings veteran experience and leadership to the LBs.

Tipping the Scale: At the Will position, the competition really is for the primary back-up position. Perhaps the team’s best linebacker in Ramseur sits atop the position group bringing back starting experience and physicality. Berry and Harris will start fall camp fighting it out for the rights to back Ramseur up. At the Mike spot, the competition may be more exciting in the fall where Bivens and Smith will likely battle to the end for the top spot with the other being the top reserve. Shaping the battle is Bivens health. Bivens brings back starter experience but is just coming out of rehabilitation for an injury last season and will have to show the coaches that he has returned to form. Smith, while not as experienced, has been showing the coaches his confidence and abilities since they arrived to take over the program, and the coaches have been impressed.

Likely Outcome: Bivens (MLB) and Ramseur (WLB) to top the Depth Chart opening week against the Wolfpack. Ramseur should be one of the better ILBs in the league and will be a leader on this unit…can’t really keep him off the field and Bivens, well, he has experience…if his health is good, his position atop the DC should be good. Smith will see the field, a lot though, so the position should strengthen as the season goes forward.

Group Think: There is one mantra that should be echoing from Ramseur down to the true freshman Stephens: “Tackle, tackle, tackle!” This position group needs to be down hill tackling machines and physical in every encounter. One of the hallmarks of the last three years was simply poor tackling. Poor technique, poor positioning and poor execution. The upside to this group as it sits today is that their leader was perhaps the best tackler in the group so the chance for the current improvement to stick is good so long as the players continue to make it a priority in their every day activities. Tackling and getting to the ball quickly will spell the success or failure of this unit.

Defensive Backs

Setting the Stage: The Pirates will deploy a 5-man secondary this season, with the traditional CBs, SS, and FS along with the Bandit position – which is a akin to an outside linebacker built like a Safety. The Pirates return a lot of familiar names and experience in the secondary, but the secondary has not been all that spectacular over the past couple of seasons so familiarity should not be automatically accepted to mean very good…yet. The unit has a ton to prove and will spell success or failure for this year defense as a whole. The Pirates return a pair of starters on the corners in Colby Gore (SR) and Mike Witherspoon (SR) and a lot of experience also coming back to compete for the Bandit position in Warren Saba (JR). Same can be said for the FS position with Davandre Robinson (JR) fighting for the job after starting there last season. The competition this fall should be heady though as there are a lot of guys who will be jostling for DC spots and capable of pushing aside a starter from last year.

Mike Witherspoon_CBs
Corner on lock, Witherspoon appears to be a strong candidate to start at CB.

Veterans Gore and Witherspoon will be pushed for their jobs on the corners by a few newbies to the roster. True freshmen Ja’Quan McMillan and Juan Powell (both of whom enrolled early and competed in spring) have turned the coaches heads and were able to push themselves into the conversation during the spring period. RS-FR Damel Hickman has also made some noise this off-season in the competition for reps at corner. At the safety positions, there is a good mix of players who have some experience and talent vying for spots on the DC including sophomore Daniel Charles and Nolan Johnson – fighting it out for the SS position – and a pair of RS-FR battling for FS time in the form of Jaren Rainey and Jireh Wilson both of whom were able to get some playing time last year without burning their RS. Finally, at the Bandit position, Saba will have to hold off true freshman Alex Angus and SO Gerard Stringer for the job.

Davondre Robinson_Safeties
Robinson is likely to own the Free Safety position for the Pirates.

Tipping the Scale: It is hard to imagine that the veteran experience that Gore and Witherspoon bring at the corner position could be displaced by a true freshman or inexperienced player. Equally difficult to believe would be that anyone knocks Robinson out of his job at FS. Saba, also an experienced player looks tough to beat out at the Bandit position. So, the speculation really focuses on the SS position where Charles has impressed the coaching staff so far and Johnson has been expected to rise there as well. IMO, Johnson has a little more length and thickness as an athlete which should give him an advantage here.

Likely outcome: Saba at Bandit with Stringer getting the most time as primary back-up. Gore and Witherspoon at the corners while the young guys are inserted for experience up and until they hit the four-game limit. Robinson at FS with Rainey as primary back-up and Johnson at SS, fighting off Charles week to week throughout the season.

Love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Go Pirates!

4 comments on “Focusing on Fall Camp…Defensive Battles will Reveal Pirates Rebuild Approach

  1. Bobby Van Brunt

    Enjoyed your analysis. Thanks!

  2. ToTheHilt

    Pharma: While I agree with the logic of your suggested starters, the youngsters continue to garner repeated comments and praise from the staff. At this point (8/15) it looks very likely that Xavier Smith and Bivens are going to be the starting LBs. Has Ramseur disappointed or has Smith just been that good? Hard to say, but based on the coach’s comments Smith has been that good. And the freshmen DBs continue to take #1 reps. Its scary to think of two starting Fr. corners, but it now clearly possible. If coach is running them at #1 primarily to motivate the returning players then at some point that needs to change or they will feel cheated when the seniors are named starters. I think that if they come out of our next scrimmage still running #1 then they are very likely to start against NC State. As always I enjoy reading your thoughts.

    • Great to hear from you TTH…i greatly appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

      I have been following the commentary and agree that Smith sounds like he is legitimately winning that job and Bivens has been coming on in camp as well. Not sure what is up with Ramseur but we need him to be a top guy IMO.

      As for the DBs and the true freshman getting a lot of reps at #1 that kind of scares me. I was thinking about true freshmen and immediate PT after I saw Coach Kirkpatrick raving about Mauney at RB. Maybe our talent is just that down across the board, but whenever I hear true freshmen getting a lot of hype, it makes me wonder just how subpar our older players are. In terms of athletes a true freshman is a boy compared to a guy who has been the S&C program for 2-3 years. Agree that the two frosh are tracking towards starting at State, but to me it will really only define the state of our overall team and talent than it will underscore how exceptional the freshmen are.

      Hope you are well. I always love to hear your thoughts on the program.

      go pirates!

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