New year, ‘Bigger’ role

Published 12:09 pm Wednesday, April 9, 2014




By Daniel Hunt

For The Washington Daily News


Pirate linebackers navigating the ship in 2014

After losing the likes of Damon Magazu, Chip Thompson, Adonis Armstrong and Derrell Johnson, ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill made it clear at his first spring press conference that he will need a man at inside linebacker to step up and be the quarterback of the defense.

“Zeek Bigger needs to step up and be a leader for us,” McNeill said.

As the Spring Game approaches and the season crawls nearer, there are still questions that need answers for ECU, but over the last few weeks, the staff seems to finally have found its leader on defense.

“Zeek has stepped up,” McNeill said. “I talked with him in the offseason about being a leader for us, and he’s done everything the coaches have asked of him.”

The junior rallies his teammates with his words and his standout performance on the field.

Bigger is no stranger to answering the call. Last season, the Pirates suffered what appeared to be a devastating blow when junior inside linebacker and vocal leader Jeremy Grove was sidelined with a nagging neck injury and nerve damage. But the second-string sophomore Bigger stepped in and made it clear that his unit wouldn’t skip a beat.

He was an instrumental piece of the 10-win team, and despite starting the season as the third option at inside linebacker, the Gastonia-native finished third in tackles with 77, right behind seniors Damon Magazu and Derrell Johnson, who both finished with 80.

In 2013, Bigger and Brandon Williams were a treat to watch on the inside with their combination of speed of power, and when a healthy Jeremy Grove was thrown into the mix, defensive coordinator Rick Smith was spoiled with options.

Bigger is returning for his junior season in 2014 as Williams enters his final season in Pirate purple, but with nagging injuries to his shoulders, neck and back, Grove will unfortunately miss his senior season. But that doesn’t mean he’s uninvolved.

“That’s my big brother,” said Bigger in regards to Grove. “He’s taught me a lot. He’s always here to encourage me and never let me down. And if I do something wrong, he’s the first one to let me know. I’m really happy to see him around. He’s hung up his cleats, but he’s still in the meeting room with us.”

The coaches are, in a way, fortunate that the loss of a playmaker like Grove occurred at the position it did. McNeill and Smith’s 3-4 defense is thick with depth at linebacker, and Grove has passed the leadership torch effectively.

“I like leading this team,” Bigger said. “Everybody looks up to [Brandon and me], and I’m happy to be in that position. Coach [McNeill] is behind us the whole way and he knows we can be leaders too.”

“Zeek and Brandon have really stepped up as leaders on the inside along with Maurice Falls and Montese Overton on the outside,” McNeill said. “Those four backers have a chance to [combine for] one of the best units we’ve had.”

McNeill isn’t blindly singing praises. Williams and Bigger are both tackling machines, Overton has NFL-caliber talent, and Falls, Pratt and Devaris Brunson all have enormous potential. Led by Bigger, the linebacker position is easily the Pirates’ most stable defensive unit.

“We can be really special,” Bigger noted. “We lost a few players, but with as much talent as we have, once the young guys learn some things, it’s all going to click.”