The pressure is on

Published 7:58 pm Tuesday, August 30, 2011

East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell (center) is hoping that more depth and size will help his unit perform better in 2011. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — Pressure. The East Carolina defense hoped to create it last season, but ironically, after a year of futility face a ton of it as the Pirates head into their season opener against No. 12 South Carolina on Saturday.
For those who blocked out the last part of the 2010 season, or have trouble adding large numbers, East Carolina yielded an FBS-worst 478.8 yards of total defense per game, to go along with its 226. 7 rushing yards (117th in FBS) and 252.1 passing yards (107th in FBS) allowed per contest to field the nation’s worst defense.
Under-first year defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell, the group promised to get pressure but mustered a mere 1.2 sacks per game which ranked 106th out of 120 Div. I teams.
In fairness to Mitchell, he inherited a team that had very little game day experience, while key players like defensive end Justin Dixon and defensive tackle Michael Brooks missed large chunks of the season due to injuries. However, the bottom line is the group did not get the job done.
Heading into his second go-round at East Carolina, Mitchell and second-year head coach Ruffin McNeill have changed the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but they will not change the fans’ perspective until they can show results on the field. Mitchell acknowledged that there has been more pressure on the players this year, but felt that his group is equipped to handle it.
“The mental toughness aspect that Coach Ruff put on them through fall camp, and the offseason conditioning with Coach (Jeff) Connors is exactly what we needed,” Mitchell said. “We need a group of guys that are a bunch of tough individuals that no matter what comes their way they are going to continue to fight and stand up to the challenge.”
While the defense has added pressure, it has also added size. In 2010, the Pirates were paper-thin on the front line, but with the work of Connors, combined with a year for the young players to grow, there is a little more beef up front.
“Right now we are basically playing with a lot of the same guys, but we are healthier. We have Justin Dixon back and we have Marke Powell back and we got some kids that are bigger, faster and stronger,” Mitchell said.
A year ago, East Carolina’s preseason depth chart for the defensive line looked like this: Freshman DE Matt Milner (6-4, 235), senior DT Josh Smith (6-1, 274), junior DT Antonio Allison (6-4, 286) and sophomore DE Marke Powell (6-3, 198).
When your defensive line has more people that way under 200 pounds than it does over 300, that’s the first sign of a problem.
This year, the preseason depth chart looks like this: sophomore DE Derrell Johnson (6-1, 263, up 45 pounds from last year), junior DT Michael Brooks (6-3, 297, up 17 pounds from last year) and sophomore DE Matt Milner (6-4, 257, up 22 pounds from last year).
The added size is just about as important as the added experience, which the Pirates are very much hoping adds to the unit’s depth. There have been plenty of implications that last year’s defense simply did not run deep enough to sustain the type of system Mitchell and McNeill want to run. This year, both coaches appear to be putting a lot of their eggs in the depth basket.
“Our thought process is to have as many guys that can finish and make plays as we can because at the tempo we are going to be asking them to run to the ball we are going to need 22 to 26 guys ” Mitchell said.
“You have to rotate guys,” McNeill said. “We want to play about 22 to 24 guys, we have to rotate them to keep them fresh. Last year we got guys in trouble with our depth, we couldn’t rotate, but now we have to be able to do that.”
That depth will be put to the test right away as the Pirates will play a loaded South Carolina team to start the season, before they come home to face Virginia Tech. The new-look D will get its first crack at a Conference USA opponent in Week 3 when it faces UAB, then again in Week 6 when it faces would could be the conference’s most explosive offense when it battles the Case Keenum-led Houston Cougars in Texas.