Davis will be key in new ‘D’|Pirates’ CB adjusts to new scheme

Published 10:48 am Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sports Write

GREENVILLE — With all the attention being paid to East Carolina’s new offense it’s easy to forget that the defense is going through an equally drastic change.
For the last few years under head coach Skip Holtz, and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, the Pirates have been a predominantly zone team that rarely blitzed its linebackers.
The old regime got results, the Pirates finished third in Conference USA in total defense (378 ypg), seventh in pass defense (258 ypg) and second in run defense (120 ypg). East Carolina’s defense also had habit of rising to the occasion, as both of its C-USA championships where sealed on picks late in the game.
This year under first-year defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell, who has spent the last four years as Texas Tech’s defensive backs coach, the Pirates will have a totally different look on the defensive side of the ball.
The general thought this year is that the Pirates’ new high-octane “Air Raid” offense will be the most exciting aspect of the team, but a blitz-heavy man defense is easily just as entertaining.
For Mitchell’s scheme to work, the East Carolina must be able to get to the quarterback quickly, but also be able to cover in the mean time. That is why junior cornerback Emanuel Davis is one of the most important pieces to the puzzle on defense.
The 5-11, 190 pound Manteo product has been a tremendous impact player since his freshman season when injuries thrust him into the mix.
In college football opposing quarterbacks go after freshman corners the same way a lion would a gimpy zebra. However, Davis stood up to the constant attacks and picked off a team-high four passes and ran one them back for a touchdown against Houston.
The redshirt freshman would go on to start five games, rack up 45 tackles and lead the Pirates with eight pass breakups en route to being named a freshman all-American by Rivals.com.
Last season, the first-team all-conference corner had team-highs in pass breakups (12) and solo tackles (51), while pulling down two picks.
After being extremely successful in Hudson’s system, Davis could easily have soured about the new scheme the way a certain defensive tackle in Washington has. However, Davis is upbeat about the new defense.
“The style last year was heavy in zone concepts; a lot of bend but don’t break. This year it will be more man-to-man,” Davis said. “We may be out there on an island more, but it’s also more chances to make plays. We got a lot of people this year that are very hungry and ready to get their beaks wet. I’m ready to see what everybody got.”
Davis doesn’t deny that he was sad to see Holtz leave, but felt first-year coach Ruffin McNeill has done a good job since taking over at ECU.
“When I found out (Holtz’s staff) was leaving I was kind of heartbroken because they brought us and I thought they would be here for the long run, but it’s a business and we all know that coming in,” Davis said. “But a new staff came in and they did a very good job of getting us ready to go and letting us get over the past while looking forward to the future.”
Davis’ future may include working on Sunday’s, especially if he can impact the game the way Mitchell feels he can.
“He’s very talented, more heady than you think, a real student of the game and a young man who is going to be a tremendous leader by example,” Mitchell said. “There is three criteria that I ask of these guys on a daily basis and that is: One, run to the ball, and he is doing that with great effort; two, be assignment sound. He is doing that with unbelievable execution; three, can he make a play? I think the fans know, and we as a coaching staff know, this kid can make plays.
“He is a guy who can energize a crowd and he can energize our team. Those guys are worth their weight in gold.”
Mitchell said the opportunity for Davis to make plays should increase under his scheme.
“I think the kid has an innate feel for plays before they happen,” Mitchell said. “So why not put him in more man-to-man situations? He will make more plays in a man-to-man situation in our scheme than if you keep putting him out there in a cover two situation.”
With the amount of times, and number of players, Mitchell’s defense dedicates to the blitz, it is vital that he have strong corner play. Having established corners such as Davis and Travis Simmons this year is critical to the unit’s success.
“When Coach Ruff told me the unit lost nine starters I was like ‘Well which nine?,’” Mitchell said. “He was like ‘Well you got both your corners back.’ I tell you what, you always want to start up the middle with your defense with your D-line, but the second area you would like to address is the corners because that allows you to do a number of things schematically.”
The transition from a zone corner to a man corner is not easy, but Davis feels he is up to the task.
“It’s much easier to play zone because your just basically back peddling and keeping everything in front of you,” Davis said. “But the man-to-man concept is a little bit harder, you have to work at it every day.”
The biggest test for the new ECU defense will be when it plays against another spread team such as itself. The Pirates have had a pretty good record versus the run-and-gun C-USA teams, and it will be interesting to see how a man defense holds up.
“It’s very hard to defend teams like that,” Davis said. “They are likely to come out and run 90 to 100 plays. It gets a defense winded trying to cover those slot guys all the way across the field, but I think our coaching staff does a good job of mixing it up. We won’t be running the same defense all the time, there will be some zone in there.”
The sophomore said there are several challenges to playing in a man defense.
“You really have to stay in the framework of a receiver’s body. Eyes are very important when playing man-to-man,” Davis said. “When you are used to playing in a zone concept you can kind of take your eyes off the receiver and look at the quarterback more. But in a man you have to keep your eyes on the receiver and follow them across the field.”
Another change, yet a subtle one, will be where Davis lines up before the snap. Under the new scheme, Davis is will be on the same side of the field no matter what.
“Last year it we played boundary corner (short side) and field corner (wide side),” Davis said. “But this year me and Travis Simmons will be playing left and right.”
Though the transition will be difficult, if Davis can produce the same results he has in the past, the coaching change can produce another positive personal result for Davis.
The lightning-quick DB has already proved himself as a zone corner, if he can establish himself as a solid man corner he should improve his draft stock greatly.
For now, Davis said he is not concerned with any NFL thoughts.
“You think about it, but I try not to think about the next level that much,” Davis said. “I’m just here, a college football player trying to win games and trying to get another conference championship.”