Blacknall gives ECU defense a boost

Published 9:34 pm Wednesday, September 21, 2011

GREENVILLE — Derek Blacknall’s first start as a Pirate wasn’t exactly a storybook success, and neither was his second one. In 2009 the sophomore strong safety was thrust into the starting spot due to injuries, and while his name might not have been known before Sept. 12 2009, it became unforgettable shortly after.
Blacknall came under fire after being on the wrong side of a few big plays during the team’s 35-20 loss to West Virginia in which the Mountaineers torched the ECU secondary. The same thing happened the following week during the Pirates’ 31-17 defeat at the hands of North Carolina.
A lot has changed since then. Blacknall has since moved to free safety in 2010 where he started 12 out of 13 games, and this year he is being asked to play corner for the first time.
Like in 2009, Blacknall knew he would get picked on in his first start at his new position as ECU took on the high-powered offense of the then-No. 13 Gamecocks. However, this time around he was up for the challenge.
Blacknall tallied four pass breakups against South Carolina, and though the Pirates lost 56-37, the ECU defense allowed a mere 131 passing yards.
“I knew they would come out and try me, the coaches told me all week they would,” Blacknall said. “So all week in practice I got ready for it and when the opportunity came in the game I took it.”
The 5-11, 176-pound Greensboro has progressed a lot since he first saw action in 2009.
“I’ve come a long way,” Blacknall said. “Previously I played safety, and this year I had to transition to corner. I feel like I came a long way at the safety spot and I feel like I came a long way at the corner spot too. But, I feel like there is still a lot of improvement that I have to make at corner because It’s my first year playing it. With that being said, I just try to come out here everyday and work at my craft.”
In that two-week stretch in 2009 WVU quarterback Jarrett Brown threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns, while Tar Heels’ QB Tyler Yates tallied 227 yards and two TDs.
So far this year after playing USC and then facing No. 11 Virginia Tech, the East Carolina pass defense has yielded an average of 111 passing yards, which ranks fourth in the nation, and Blacknall’s play has been a big part of that.
Blacknall, like the ECU defense, has been battered in the past, but has done a nice job of stepping up to the challenge.
“Bad things happen on and off the field, that’s something that coach (Ruffin McNeill) likes to talk about, adversity,” Blacknall said. “When adversity hits you can do one of two things: You can run away from it or you can stand up to it. I feel like that’s what I chose to do, stand up to it. I went out, worked hard in the weight room, worked hard on and off the field and faced those challenges and tried my hardest not to make sure it happened again.”
While the decision to play corner was not his own, Blacknall doesn’t care one bit and said he will do anything for the team and its coaches.
“The decision came from upstairs, but as far as my reaction; I’m a team player. I’ll play anywhere whether it’s safety, corner, linebacker or D-end,” Blacknall said.
Blacknall’s move to corner was facilitated by the rise of sophomore free safety Damon Magazu, whose one-handed interception in the end zone against the Hokies made all the highlight shows.
Pirates defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said the move was made not only because Magazu showed promise, but because he had confidence Blacknall could play the field corner position.
“A big reason why we went to this (3-4) scheme is because it fit our personnel and Damon Magazu fits this defense to a T,” Mitchell said. “It makes no sense not to get your best players on the football field and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”
As for Blacknall getting beat deep, those days appear to be in the past.
“He plays the deep ball and transitions out of his back pedal as well as any corner I’ve ever coached,” Mitchell said. “He’s been able to have that catch up speed when he’s not in position, but he’s playing the ball exceptionally well.”