Pirates' defense must slow down Tulsa's versatile Johnson|New-look unit is ready for first test

Published 1:40 pm Wednesday, September 1, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — The new-look Pirates defense will be on stage front and center Sunday when East Carolina hosts Tulsa in its season/Conference USA opener at 2 p.m.
The Golden Hurricane should provide a good first test for first-year defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell’s unit. In recent years Tulsa has produced one of the most explosive offenses in the conference, and though the team struggled last season, it still posted nearly 30 points per game.
The Tulsa offense may have a little bit of a different look this season as it had to replace former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who is credited for popularizing the wildcat offense when he ran it at Arkansas. New offensive coordinator Chad Morris is expected to continue running a similar offense to Malzahn’s, and with the return of starting wideouts Damaris Johnson, Trae Johnson and Rickey Johnson, along with starting QB G.J. Kinne, Morris should get similar results.
Out of the group, Damaris Johnson poses the biggest threat to the ECU defense as the 5-8, 170-pound junior led the nation in all-purpose yards last season with a 224.4 yards per game.
As a receiver, Johnson finished the year with 78 catches for 1,131 yards and three touchdowns, while averaging 14 yards per punt return and 24.6 yards per kickoff return.
Johnson enters the season with 5,168 career all-purpose yards which is seventh on C-USA’s all-time list. Current Panthers’ running back DeAngelo Williams holds the top spot with 7,573, while former Pirate Chris Johnson is second with 6,993.
Johnson’s 2,513 career kickoff return yards standsfourth in among conference career leaders, and less the 500 yards away from the top spot held by former SMU star Jessie Henderson.
“He’s just electric,” Mitchell said of Johnson. “He’s fast, quick, he’s got great hands and he’s a heady player. He’s very competitive and has the ability to go the distance every play.”
The new-look Pirates are expected to play a heavy dose of man-to-man this season, and Mitchell said that his unit will look to enforce its will on Tulsa’s offense.
“We have to come out and play our football,” Mitchell said. “We’re not going to let one person dictate to us, we are going to try and dictate to them. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
East Carolina will start an entirely new front seven this season, and the change might be felt the hardest on the D-line. Last year the Pirates started the ultra-talented unit of C.J. Wilson, Linval Joseph, Jay Ross and Scotty Robinson. Three of those four players are currently on NFL rosters.
Taking their places will be redshirt DE Matt Milner, senior DT Josh Smith, redshirt freshman NT Jimmy Booth and sophomore DE Marke Powell.
Playing behind them will be senior strongside LB Dustin Lineback, senior MLB Steve Spence and senior WLB Wes Pittman, who last year was a wide receiver. While everyone in the group is a senior, the trio is very young in terms of playing experience. The Pirates are also a tad on the small side on the outside as both Lineback and Pittman are under six-feet tall.
Mitchell said that so far this summer he has been pleased with the group’s work.
“They have been knowledgeable, short on experience on the field, but athleticism is very good,” Mitchell said. “But they are students of the game more than anything.”
As far as the size of the OLB’s, Mitchell said, “We are going to try and put them in the best situation. Our scheme is going to be our scheme and we are going to run what we are going to run. If the guy is 240-pounds so be it, I don’t care if he is 240 or 300. There are some things they can do that the 300-pound guy can’t do.”
McNeill said that he and his staff place an emphasis on quickness.
“We’re looking for speed,” McNeill said. “This league is full of spread offenses and you have to have athletic guys on the edge and you have to have guys that can play inside and can run.”