Pirates give defense a makeover

Published 9:35 pm Monday, March 21, 2011

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill looks on during a practice last season. On Monday, McNeill and the Pirates began spring practice. (WDN File Photo)

GREENVILLE — After fielding one of the worst defenses statistically in college football last season, there was no doubt something had to change for East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill as he headed into his second season at the helm of his alma matter.

That change was announced on Monday as McNeill and second-year defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell have decided to abandon their 4-3 alignment of a year ago and go forth with a 3-4 front in 2011.

Last year, the Pirates finished the season 6-7 (5-3 Conference USA) and earned a trip to the Military Bowl where they lost to Maryland 51-20.

East Carolina began the season 5-2, but went 1-5 down the stretch in large part because it fielded a young, injury-plagued defensive line that failed to stop the run and could not pressure the quarterback.

The Pirates ended the year placing 120th out of 120 FBS teams in total defense (478.8 ypg) and rush defense (226.7 ypg), while its pass defense ranked 107th (252.1 ypg).

McNeill, whose team began spring practice on Monday, said the makeup of his roster is better suited towards a 3-4 defense.

“We will go to a 3-4 package and the reason behind that is personnel issues,” McNeill said. “We have a lot of guys on campus, like a Justin Dixon (sophomore DL/LB) and Marke Powell (junior DL/LB) just to name a few, that can step up be guys that can stand up on two legs and maybe run around a little better.”

Last season, Dixon tallied three sacks in the team’s first four games playing as a 4-3 defensive end before a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. Despite missing nine games, Dixon’s three sacks would tie freshman defensive end Matt Milner for the team lead.

McNeill, who was a defensive coordinator at Texas Tech before coming to ECU, said that he and Mitchell both decided to make the switch, and that it is a move that the staff is comfortable with.

“We came about (the decision) together,” McNeill said. “Everyone on our staff has 3-4 experience. I have 3-4 experience, Brian (Mitchell) has 3-4 experience, (outside linebackers coach) Duane Price has 3-4 experience and (defensive line coach) Mark Yellock played in a 3-4 while he was here and (associate head coach/inside linebackers coach) John Wiley has experience in it.”

The Pirates’ defense will return seven starters from last year’s team, which includes free safety Derek Blacknall, who leave his starting free safety spot to play cornerback. Blacknall will compete for the job that was left vacant by the departed Travis Simmons.

Sophomore Damon Magazu, who made the game-clinching interception during the Pirates 33-27 overtime win over N.C. State last year, is expecting to be a top candidate to for the starting free safety role.

A year ago, the big story was who would play starting quarterback, but after a record-setting performance by junior transfer Dominique Davis, that is one question McNeill does not have to worry about this spring.

Under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, Davis rewrote the ECU record book as his connected on 393 of his 609 pass attempts for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdown passes, all of which are school records.

Davis flourished under Riley’s pass-happy, spread offense as East Carolina posted 36.7 points per game, which was the 16th highest total in the nation.

The Pirates biggest concerns on offense revolves around an offensive line that must replace three starters from a year ago, and a running back corps that must find a way to overcome the loss of starting running back Jonathan Williams and his primary backup Giavani Ruffin.

“The most vital position is offensive line, and we have to establish our starters there ,” McNeill said. “There are some guys that have stepped up in the offseason, but that was the offseason. I’m ready to see how they perform with full pads.”

As spring practice begins sophomore Michael Dobson and freshman Alex Owah will battle for the starting running back role. Sophomore Damonte Terry is nursing a broken hand that was injured during a community service event and will have to wait to join the competition. Of the three, Dobson has the most experience as he rushed 11 times for 62 yards.

“The running back position is a position where we will have to find out who will step up and swing the bat,” McNeill said. “That position calls for a lot of responsibility: blocking, catching, receiving as well as running the football. We will see who steps up.”

Also in the mix at running back will be 2011 signees freshmen Chevelle Buie, Chris Hairston, JUCO transfer Reggie Bullock and former wide receiver sophomore Torrence Hunt.

Bullock, who played at Arizona Western Community College, led the NCJAA in rushing with 1,830 yards and was named the NCJAA Co-Player of the Year.

The wide receiving corps, which is 19 players deep, should not miss the absence of Hunt, as it figures to be the deepest unit the team has. While ECU lost its all-time leading receiver Dwayne Harris to graduation, it will bring back 6-3, 212 pound senior deep threat Lance Lewis (89 rec, 1,116 yards, 14 touchdowns), along with 5-8 senior speedster Michael Bowman (47, 434, 3).

“The wide receiver position has the most personnel, now we have to see who will be those guys in the top eight or top 10 that we travel with each game and use in this offense,” McNeill said. “You don’t replace a Dwayne Harris, you just maybe have some guys that can accumulate his importance to the team yardage-wise and performance-wise.”

East Carolina will hold 15 spring practices which all builds toward the April 16th spring game (2:30 p.m.)

The Pirates will open the season on Sept. 3 against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.