Grove in a groove

Published 8:10 pm Wednesday, October 5, 2011

North Carolina’s Dwight Jones (83) carries the ball as East Carolina’s Jeremy Grove (53) looks on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. (AP Photo/The Daily Reflector, Scott Davis)

GREENVILLE — Playing middle linebacker in the Pirates’ new 3-4 defense, Jeremy Grove has been given one primary objective: stop the run.

So far, the redshirt freshman has done his best to fulfill his duties as the 6-1, 230-pounder has amassed 52 tackles in East Carolina’s first four games of the season.

That total averages out to 13 stops per game, the second-highest average in the nation, and his play is a big reason why the Pirates have gone from having the 117th ranked rush defense in 2010 to the 102nd as ECU (1-3, 1-0) heads into its Conference USA clash with Houston (5-0, 1-0) on Saturday.

While the jump from 117 to 102 might not seem like that big of an increase, it should be noted that the Pirates have faced two highly rated NFL prospects at the running back position in South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson in their first two games. The two games following that didn’t get much easier as they had to defend against versatile UAB RB Pat Shed and UNC’s super freshman Giovani Bernard.

While each one of those runners had success against the ECU defense, the unit is not getting steamrolled each week and the toughness that Grove brings to the table is a big part of that.

“He’s had a tremendous season,” East Carolina second-year defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “I thought going into the season that if we were productive at that position we would be a good football team and Jeremy has brought an element of exactness to our unit.

“He’s a kid that’s going to be in there day-in and day-out and not let his level of play go down. He’s a throwback. He’s a kid that studies the game and wants to be good. He’s relentless in everything he does. He wants to be the very best at his position and he’s not going to relent to the guy behind him or the person across from him.”

Grove said head coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff harped on being more aggressive against the run heading into training camp.

“Back in the spring our coaches really put an emphasis on stopping the run, so that’s the main thing,” Grove said. “Our guys up front and our D-line have really improved this year and are doing a good job.”

So far this year the Maryland native has posted double-digit tackle totals in each game, which includes a career-high 15 stops in ECU’s 28-23 win over UAB. That total was the highest since another throwback linebacker named Nick Johnson did it in against Marshall in 2009.

With his size, strength and intellect, Grove has been extremely impressive so far and his play has Mitchell excited about what the future holds for the young inside linebacker.

“If he’s not an all-American by the time he leaves here I’ll be miffed,” Mitchell said. “He’s on course to be one of the most productive linebackers probably in this school’s history.”

When pressed on that statement Mitchell did not back down saying, “I stand by that.”

Grove was lightly recruited coming out of Thomas Johnson High School, as Navy and Louisville where the only FBS schools to offer him a scholarship. The young tackle machine said he chose ECU because he liked the family atmosphere.

Mitchell said he likes the young ILB because he has the work ethic of another era mixed with present day athleticism.

“He’s a prototypical old school linebacker, but he’s got one thing those old school linebackers didn’t have: more quickness and more lateral speed,” Mitchell said. “He’s done a great job in the pass game and he’s done a great job in the run game and he just refuses to get blocked.”