Pirates' defense in a rush to stop the run|Young D-line continues to learn on the job

Published 4:41 am Wednesday, November 10, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Brian@wdnweb.com, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — The Pirates have gone full speed ahead in getting prepared for Thursday night’s clash at UAB, and after losing 76-35 to Navy you can’t blame them for wanting to move forward as quickly as possible.
After dropping its Conference USA East division foothold with a 49-35 loss to league leader UCF (7-2, 5-0) two weeks ago, East Carolina (5-4, 4-1) got shelled 76-35 by Navy in its final non-conference game of the year.
On Thursday, the Pirates will look to get back on track as they return to their conference schedule against a Blazers (3-6, 2-3) team that is coming off of a 31-17 loss to Marshall.
East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said that he looking forward to getting his team back on the field, but also acknowledged that the lack of time for players to heal is a big concern for a defense that has lost three defensive linemen for the season in Justin Dixon, Michael Brooks and Marke Powell.
“You always worry about the recovery time,” Mitchell said. “After playing a physical team like we did in Navy, now we got to turn back around and play a Thursday night game. So you are asking your kids to do something their bodies are not used to. But these kids have adjusted well and I think our coaching staff has done a good job of putting together a good game plan.”
That plan must include a way to stop the run. In the Pirates last two losses the team has let up 265 yards to UCF and 521 yards to Navy for a combined 786 rushing yards in two games.
East Carolina is trying to combat rushing attacks with a 4-3 defense that features two freshman defensive ends in Derrell Johnson and Matt Milner, a sophomore tackle in Robert Jones and a senior tackle in Josh Smith, who has been battling neck pains.
On top of being young, the group is on the small side for defensive linemen. Last year’s unit consisted of DE C.J. Wilson (6-4, 278), DT Jay Ross (6-3, 314), DT Linval Joseph (6-6, 322) and DE Scotty Robinson (6-4, 271).
On this year’s team, Smith at 6-1, 274 pounds is the only starter above 270. At the ends, Johnson is listed at 6-1, 248, while Milner is lanky 6-4, 235. There are two guys in the rotation that are above 280 pound in freshman DT Jimmy Booth (6-2, 288) and junior DT Antonio Allison (6-4, 286), but you will not find any coveted “space eaters” on this line.
With the loss of Powell and Brooks, ECU was forced to remove the redshirt off of freshman DE Lee Pegues, but he does not bring the size the team needs as he stands at 6-2, 255 pounds.
Johnson, a true freshman who played middle linebacker in high school, said he has upped his weight this season and is working hard in the weight room to get bigger.
“I came in at about 250 but I’m up to 260 now,” Johnson said. “The work in the weight room has been amazing. Just trying to get into shape, it’s a lot different then what I’m used to. The pace and intensity is the main thing. It’s much more intense, that definitely played a big role in me putting on weight and getting stronger.”
The young defensive line has seen its far share of growing pains in the last two weeks.
“It’s a process. It’s one of those progressions where if you go through it enough times you will learn how to expect that punch that will come across the line and I think that’s what our kids have been through the last couple of weeks,” Mitchell said. “We have faced two very good physical teams that do a good job of down hill running and our kids didn’t react and respond the way I thought they should have. I think the kids, with good coaching and good emphasis on technique, will get where we need to go.”
Johnson said this year has been filled with learning experiences.
“It’s been an interesting season,” said Johnson who at this time last year was playing high school football in Baltimore. “I’ve learned a lot from this season. I’m just trying to get acclimated with everything; there has been a lot of learning.”
Johnson, who played over 90 snaps against N.C. State, said he did not envision being on the field this much during the spring.
“No, I knew I was presented with an opportunity if I came in and worked hard and did what I had to do. But this much playing time; I didn’t expect to play as much as I am,” Johnson said.
Football is a copycat sport and if opposing teams feel like they can expose a unit that is weak against the run, they will. Mitchell said it is his job is to prepare his players for everything.
“I don’t know what I am going to see (in the future), but I am going to defend against what they are putting on tape and if we need to add another guy in the box to stop the run that is what we are going to do,” Mitchell said.
Another issue with such a young group is the fear that they will hit the wall and wear down as the season goes on.
“If you were to go back and evaluate it you might find a moment where we might be overworking them, but I think it’s a byproduct of not having enough players to practice with and play in a game because at the pace we are going at those guys are to run to the ball down after down and be effective against the pass and run,” Mitchell said.
Johnson admitted at times he feels tired by said his job is mentally overcome it.
“Yeah in a way, the body can only go through so much but you have to just push through that,” Johnson said.
Johnson knows his team must put forth a better effort against the run and said that the players have to just work hard and believe in what they’re being taught.
“We just have to make sure everybody is just doing their job and listening to the coaches,” Johnson said. “It’s an 11-man game so we all have to just come out and do our jobs.”