Simmons, ECU defense look to build on opener|Senior CB had six tackles and an INT versus Tulsa

Published 3:02 pm Thursday, September 9, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — East Carolina was up 17-13 with less than two minutes on the clock in the second quarter on Sunday as Tulsa, which had started its possession at its own 17-yard line, now stood at the Pirates’ 5. It was third-and-goal for the Golden Hurricane, who had swiftly moved up the field and was looking to get in the end zone with hopes of taking a lead into halftime. However, Travis Simmons had different plans.
Simmons, the Pirates’ senior cornerback, was locked up man-to-man on Tulsa’s super wideout Damaris Johnson. After two moves, the speedy wide receiver could not shake Simmons. Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne saw a small window and tried to force the ball into his all-Conference USA receiver, however, Simmons quickly shut that window down and used every bit of his 5-10 frame to break up the pass. Tulsa settle for a field goal, Pirates maintained the lead going into the break.
“(Defensive coordinator) Brian Mitchell called a blitz and we basically had to man up,” Simmons said. “I was on Damaris Johnson and my technique was to keep the inside leverage. He wanted to slant at first, but I took the slant away. Then I guess he tried to go out, but I just stayed disciplined and was able to get a hand on it.”
If this year’s defense wants to be ranked with some of the more stellar ones in recent ECU history it is going to need a lot more plays like that from Simmons, who finished the game with six tackles and an interception, as well as fellow cornerback Emanuel Davis and safeties Derek Blacknall and Bradley Jacobs.
The Pirates (1-0, 1-0), who return only two starters from its C-USA title-winning team in Simmons and Davis, gave up nearly 400 passing yards and allowed 579 total yards in their thrilling 51-49 victory on Sunday. Lost in the shuffle after wide receiver Justin Jones came up with the game-winning, last-second touchdown reception was that if the Pirates’ defense would have come up with at least one stop in the second half it wouldn’t have needed the last-minute heroics from the freshman.
That can not happen again this weekend as East Carolina will host a rebuilding Memphis team (0-1) that has a new coach in Larry Porter and is looking to replace its two star wideouts from year ago in Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton.
Simmons said that the talent is there to be able to become a solid defense, but the unit just needs to work out the kinks.
“It’s not a physical aspect with us, there were just a lot of mental errors because it was the first game,” Simmons said. “I think we will do a great job. Our pass rush will improve and so will our coverage. It’s the first game and there were a lot of mental errors. I expect that from an inexperienced defense.”
Playing behind a blitz-heavy defense, it would be easy for Simmons and the rest of the DBs to slack off after a few seconds in anticipation of a sack, but the senior from Florida said, “My job is to cover as long as I can. I don’t have a mental clock or nothing like that.”
Last season under defensive coordinator Greg Hudson the Pirates were a predominantly zone team. This year under Mitchell, who favors man-to-man, the ECU D-backs will be asked to cover wide receivers a lot more.
“We ran about 70 (percent man) 30 (percent zone) against Tulsa,” Simmons said. “We ran some zone, but we were trying to take out Damaris so we manned up a lot more. It can change week in and week out but it just depends on what the offense is showing us.”
As for which style Simmons favors, the Phil Steele all-conference selection said “I like to play whatever the coach wants us to play.”
East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said he expects a lot of improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, and if the defense can take a step East Carolina could be looking at starting off with a 2–0 overall and Conference USA record heading into its matchup with Virginia Tech.