Pirates’ secondary seeks to improve

Published 6:41 pm Sunday, August 24, 2008

By By STEVE FRANKLIN, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — Van Eskridge takes it to heart when he opens up one of the many college football preview magazines and sees the rankings predicting that the Pirates will have one of the 10 worst secondaries in all of college football.
He’s sick of the jokes about the Pirates’ 114th ranked pass defense. Tired of hearing about how bad ECU’s secondary was in 2007.
Last season, the Pirates allowed 289 yards per game through the air, and allowed 26 passing touchdowns. They also had trouble making crucial tackles that resulted in big runs.
"We say this time and time again,” ECU head coach Skip Holtz said. “When the defensive line misses a tackle, it's 2nd-and-6. When the linebackers miss a tackle, it's 1st-and-10, when the secondary misses a tackle, it's 7-0. There's a lot riding on every mistake that they make.”
East Carolina will return six guys with starting experience.
Its deepest position is safety, where Eskridge, Best, Mattocks and J.J. Millbrook all have logged at least three career starts. Eskridge, who led the Pirates with 104 tackles last season, is being challenged for the starting free safety spot by Millbrook, who led the Pirates with three interceptions a season ago. Best appears to be locked in at strong safety.
At the left cornerback position, Jerek Hewett and Travis Simmons will battle for a starting spot. Hewett started eight games in 2007 and recorded a pair of interceptions, while Simmons started four games and made one interception which he returned for an 80-yard touchdown.
The only position where the Pirates lack experience is at right corner where sophomore Darryl Reynolds is listed as the starter on the preseason depth chart, ahead of redshirt freshman Emanuel Davis.
"One of the concerns going into last year was that Jerek Hewett and Leon Best hadn't played. There were a lot of guys back there who hadn't had a lot of time. Van Eskridge had been a linebacker and all of a sudden was a safety. Chris Mattocks hadn't played,” Holtz said. “You look at a lot of young guys who had never played before and now you see guys who are battle tested and have been seasoned for a year.”
The secondary did show some signs of life late last season as they didn’t allow a 300-yard passer in the final three games. They hope to build on that success this season.
Holtz is impressed with how the Pirates’ secondary took responsibility for last year’s debacle and went into the offseason with a desire to get better.
"Last year they just wanted to get on the field and play. Now, it's what do we have to do to win?,” Holtz said. “I left this office a number of times in the summer at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. and every time I walked by the defensive staff meeting room, Leon Best was in there watching film on his own in the middle of the summer. It's not enough just to play, but he's watching game film finding out what he has to do to get better and what they have to do to improve.
"That's the maturing process that a lot of people go through. As freshmen and sophomores, they just want to play. As juniors and seniors they get to the point where they want to win. I think that's the progress (the secondary) is making,” Holtz added. “They're very responsible and want to be good. They made some mistakes early last year that hurt us a little bit. But last year they got better week-to-week. We got better in the spring and hopefully, this fall, we make the same type of progress to the point where the secondary can be one of our strengths."