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Secondary a primary concern

East Carolina corner Adonis Armstrong (3) a JUCO transfer, is one several players competing for a starting corner spot this season for the Pirates, who head into the 2012 season having lost both their starting CBs to graduation. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — Though it’s called the secondary, the unit became a primary concern for the East Carolina football team during the offseason as it lost three out of its four starters due to graduation.
Last year the play of the secondary was a key factor in the Pirates rise from being ranked 107th against the pass in 2010 to having the 33rd best pass defense in 2011.
The depletion of the defensive backfield led to East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill and defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell putting a premium on recruiting safeties and corners this offseason as five of the 19 players signed were DBs.
“It was a big concern because we lost two corners and good safety,” Mitchell said. “We developed some at the corner spots with (Leonard) Paulk and Jacobi (Jenkins) who had some good work throughout the season, but we didn’t have a Kat (strong) safety that had any number of reps to say that, that guy was experienced. So it was a little bit of a concern at the Kat position, plus we were concerned about the overall depth.”
Gone is all-Conference USA boundary corner Emanuel Davis, along with two-year starting strong safety Bradley Jacobs and departed starting field corner Derek Blacknall, who each combined to start 91 games during their tenure with the Pirates. That kind of veteran savvy is tough to duplicate.
“Experience is the hardest thing to replace. To be an expert in this game you need to have 10,000 hours or 100,000 reps and we try to simulate as much as we can in practice but that’s not going to simulate game day tempo and scheme and things of that nature.”
However, what the Pirates’ DBs lack in experience, Mitchell feels they make up for in talent.
“Collectively, I think we’re more athletic and I think we’ll have more depth,” Mitchell said. “I think the kids are competing at a level where they are pushing one another and that will make us a better secondary. Instead of going six deep like we did last year, I think we might go eight or nine deep this year.”
Anchoring that unit will be junior free safety Damon Magazu, the lone returning starter. Magazu rose to fame his freshman year when he grabbed the game-clinching interception against N.C. State in overtime and as a sophomore he started every game and led ECU with four interceptions.
“He understands the defense front to back,” Mitchell said. “He understands the weaknesses and the strengths of the defense and knows how to get everyone lined up.”
Competing for the other starting safety spot are sophomores Lamar Ivey and Desi Brown, along with JUCO transfer Godfrey Thompson.
“I think right now Lamar probably has a heads up on the other two guys but I will tell you what, Des is not that far off an Godfrey’s not that far off,” Mitchell said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to put one of the three in there.”
East Carolina has at least eight corners vying to occupy the two vacancies but right now Jenkins, Paulk and JUCO transfer Adonis Armstrong appear to be leading the pack.
“Jacobi played about 50 percent of the snaps last year and Paulk started against South Carolina and played about 30 percent of the snaps the rest of the year. Those guys are athletic enough and talented enough and their football IQ is pretty high,” Mitchell said. “I also feel good about Adonis Armstrong coming in. He’s a very heady kid, understands football. He’s definitely going to be a kid you see on game day.”
Of course there is one player who has yet to enter the mix that could shakeup the depth chart at both safety and corner and that’s highly-touted freshman Lucas Thompson, who won’t join the team in until the summer.
An UnderArmour All-American, Thompson is a 6-1, 190-pound Florida native who Mitchell said has tremendous athletic ability.
“We’ll find a place for him,” Mitchell said. “He has a rare talent because he can play corner and he can play safety. He can run, jump, change direction and he’s physical. He can do a number of things for us in the secondary. We’ll see where we are going to need him and we’ll start from there.”