2011 East Carolina Preview – Defense
East Carolina LB Justin Dixon
East Carolina LB Justin Dixon
Posted Jun 24, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - East Carolina Pirate Defense

East Carolina Pirates

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: In the blink of an eye, East Carolina's reputation as a physical defensive team had vanished. The squad that was so feisty and stout under Skip Holtz was a sieve in Ruffin McNeill's first year. Sure, he inherited a D that lost nine starters, but even that was a weak excuse for what took place in 2010. The Pirates were one of the country's worst defenses, ranking 119th in points allowed and dead last in total defense. In the offseason, McNeill opted to switch to a 3-4 in order to get more playmakers on the field and recruited JUCO transfers capable of contributing right away. They'll join a seasoned unit, including CB Emanuel Davis and S Bradley Jacobs, that realizes the only way is up in 2011. Above all else, the Pirates have to get more of a push up front in order to help the beleaguered last two lines of defense.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Bradley Jacobs, 80
Sacks: Justin Dixon, Matt Milner, 3
Interceptions: Bradley Jacobs, 4

Star of the defense: Senior CB Emanuel Davis
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DT Antonio Allison
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Justin Dixon
Best pro prospect: Davis
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Davis, 2) Senior S Bradley Jacobs, 3) Junior LB Lamar McLendon
Strength of the defense: Overall depth, athleticism, safeties
Weakness of the defense: Getting pressure, run defense, turnovers, pass defense

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: When a defense gets shredded the way East Carolina's did in 2010, every unit shares in the responsibility. The line was certainly not immune from criticism. Rebuilding from the loss of five lettermen, four starters, and two first team all-stars, the staff rotated starters on a weekly basis, rarely finding the right combination. The big news in the offseason is the transition to a 3-4 base, which will instantly improve the group's depth.

One of last year's pleasant surprises at defensive end was 6-4, 248-pound sophomore Matt Milner, who started 11 games in his first season of action. An ACC-caliber defender, he used a mix of speed and intensity to amass 47 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and three sacks. Partly out of necessity,

6-1, 259-pound sophomore Derrell Johnson started 11 games on the outside in his rookie year out of high school. He struggled at times and needs to get stronger, but managed to make 40 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. There are high hopes for Leroy Vick, a coveted transfer from Georgia Military College. At 6-6 and 283 pounds, he's being counted on to support the run more than pressuring the passer on a consistent basis.

The coaching staff will have plenty of choices on the inside, welcoming back four players who lettered in 2010. Senior Antonio Allison started only three games and made 23 tackles, but is expected to be one of the leaders on the inside. As healthy as he's been in a while, there's hope he can put it all together and become more of a run-stuffer up front. Junior Michael Brooks was delivering a solid season when a right knee injury ended his season in October. At the time, he'd 29 tackles and 3.5 stops for loss, showing the drive and fundamentals that'll make it tough to keep him off the field. At 6-3 and 268 pounds, junior Robert Jones is undersized for the nose, but has the quick first step to frustrate plodding centers and guards. After starting five games and making 28 stops, he's pining for more snaps, whether at tackle or end.

Watch Out For .... the newcomers. Vick isn't the only first-year player bucking for immediate playing time. JUCOs Chris Baker and John Lattimore arrive in the summer and the crop of high school talent is rich. The competition for playing time promises to be intense in the summer.
Strength: Bodies. Three starters are needed. Eight Pirate linemen earned letters last season. Finding fresh legs and filling out a deep rotation will not be a problem for the coaching staff. Plus, the influx of recruits ensures that stiff competition will bring out the best in all involved.
Weakness: Getting a push. At a base level, the Pirates simply got beat at the point of attack, lacking the physicality to win the battles at the line of scrimmage. When a defense ranks 117th nationally in run defense and 109th in sacks, there's a very good chance that the line is getting routinely abused.
Outlook: The D-line will be better, in part because it can't get any worse. Hidden beneath the atrocious numbers are some gifted linemen, who never seemed to find their footing in 2010. The upcoming season represents a fresh start, and the addition of talented junior college transfers is a wild card that should provide instant dividends.
Rating: 5


State of the Unit: East Carolina has had to endure a revolving door at linebacker. Not only have graduations taken their toll, but the defensive line claimed some of the group's better athletes in 2010. Now that the program is switching to a 3-4, some of those miscast defenders are moving back a level to bolster the second line of defense. Priority No. 1 will be replacing Dustin Lineback and Melvin Patterson, last season's top two tacklers.

One of the lone bright spots from 2010 was 6-0, 217-pound junior Lamar McLendon, who started 10 games and made 63 tackles and seven tackles for loss. However, he's decided to retire from the program. His departure has opened up a spot for 6-1, 228-pound redshirt freshman Jeremy Grove on the inside. He lacks the reps, but gets from sideline-to-sideline quickly.

Junior Marke Powell is one of the former linemen being shifted to his more natural position. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, he's better suited for outside linebacker, where his quickness and mental toughness can be on display. Before injuring his arm, he'd started four games and made 23 tackles in 2010.

Senior Cliff Perryman is one of the veterans of the corps, having played 30 games and backing up Lineback at weakside a year ago. Players with his experience are a luxury, even if he can't lock down a starting job. Like Perryman, senior Matt Thompson is another valuable vet that teams like to have around. A hard worker, he'd made 16 tackles in seven games before an eye injury shut him down.

At the two inside positions, sophomores Justin Dixon and Ty Holmes are prime candidates for extensive playing time. The 6-1, 228-pound Dixon has exciting potential, which became evident even in an injury-shortened rookie year. Despite being out of place at defensive end, he still managed to make 10 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks before hurting his left knee. At 6-1 and 233 pounds, Holmes is ideally built for defending the run at middle linebacker. He fit in during his first season on campus, starting a game and making 13 tackles.

Watch Out For .... Dixon's recovery. Assuming he suffers no setbacks in his rehab, he needs to be on the field as much as possible. He's a former recruit of Butch Davis at North Carolina, who was unable to meet the Heels' academic standards. If the Pirates can get him in space, he's liable to be a real nuisance in Conference USA.
Strength: Range and athleticism. While raw and inconsistent, there's no doubt that this group has the speed and agility to make plays all over the field. Get, say, Dixon, Holmes, Powell, and McLendon in the huddle at the same time, and the Pirates will have a lethal combination of sideline-to-sideline playmakers.
Weakness: Consistency in run defense. There were plenty of reasons East Carolina yielded 226 yards a game in run defense, but one was the linebackers' inability to fill lanes and prevent yards after contact. This isn't a big group that can intimidate or out muscle the other team.
Outlook: There's no doubt that there's raw talent in Greenville, especially now that a bunch of former ends are moving back to their natural positions. The key will be to start realizing it. The staff's objective in the offseason will be to maximize the skills of the linebackers and form a usable rotation of inside and outside defenders.
Rating: 4.5


State of the Unit: The East Carolina secondary got shredded in 2010, but few groups would have fared much better. The Pirates faced an impossible, surviving in a pass-happy conference with almost no support from the front seven. While nine lettermen are back and only three have graduated, the most important numbers for the pass defense will once again be sacks and quarterback hurries, two stats largely out of its control.

The Pirates have one final year with 5-11, 190-pound senior Emanuel Davis, one of the finest cornerbacks much of the country has never seen play. An All-Conference USA first team choice in each of the last two seasons, he made 54 tackles, three stops for loss, two picks, and nine pass breakups in 2010. Good enough to draw the other team's best receiver, he's also a fine tackler in the open field.

The favorite to join Davis at the other corner spot is senior Derek Blacknall . The converted safety is coming off his best season with the program, making 73 tackles, picking off two passes, and breaking up six others. Just 5-11 and 180 pounds, he defends the run like a much bigger player. Behind him is 6-0, 178-pound junior Jacobi Jenkins , who was pressed into duty after Travis Simmons was injured last fall. A converted wide receiver and big hitter, he suffered through growing pains, making 30 tackles and allowing too many big plays.

Juniors Leonard Paulk and Rahkeem Morgan are a pair of head-hunters, who need to sharpen their coverage skills. They had 17 and 15 tackles, respectively, dishing out punishment on special teams as well. The Eagles feel set at safety with the returns of a pair of productive vets.

Over at strong safety, 5-10, 192-pound senior Bradley Jacobs stood out in his debut out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. An aggressive and physical defender, he had 80 tackles and four interceptions, tops among all returning players. Sophomore FS Damon Magazu was a revelation as a true freshman, starting one game and making 30 stops. A heady and tough player, he made his mark on special teams, leading the program in tackles.

Watch Out For .... Jenkins and the other corners to get picked on incessantly. Despite some missteps a year ago, Davis is the kind of cover corner that quarterbacks prefer to avoid. Instead, they'll take their chances on the other side of the field, testing defensive backs with more holes in their game.
Strength: Tackling. In Greenville, the corners wrap up like safeties and the safeties deliver the payload like linebackers. Everyone hits in this secondary, a boon to the run defense and a concern for the other team's receivers.
Weakness: Allowing big plays. Last year's numbers are staggering … in a bad way. The Pirates had nearly a 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio, yielding 31 scores through the air and picking off just seven balls. They've got to keep the ball in front of them and stiffen near the end zone.
Outlook: The secondary needs more help from the front seven, primarily the pass rush. However, that's largely out of the group's control. Regardless of what happens around them, the defensive backs will have to make more plays—and prevent some—to help elevate the rest of the D. They're fine in run support, but when the ball is in the air, someone other than Davis has to be standing out.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: With last year's punter and placekicker back in Greenville, there'll be little mystery who'll be handling those duties in the fall. Maryland transfer Michael Barbour was an instant hit as the Pirate kicker, making second team All-Conference USA. While most of his work came on PATs, he also excelled on field goals, hitting 16-of-18, including a 52-yarder against UAB. The grip of senior Ben Ryan on the punting job is quite a bit more tenuous. He was sporadic in his first year on the job, averaging less than 40 yards and providing little cover to a defense that needed it.

Watch Out For… the competition in the return game. The graduations of Dwayne Harris and Jon Williams leave East Carolina with a couple of key holes to fill on special teams. Senior Michael Bowman is one option. As a spot returner on kickoffs, he showed a spark, taking one back for 56 yards.
Strength: Barbour. When he decided to leave College Park for Greenville, it instantly gave the Pirates one of Conference USA's premier kickers. Accurate and powerful, he's a good weapon, even if his field goal attempts are infrequent.
Weakness: Punter. With the defensive hurdles facing the Pirates, they need a booming punter, who can pin opponents deep in their own territory and dictate field position. If last season was any indication, Ryan isn't that guy.
Outlook: With plenty of help from Barbour and the coverage units, special teams bordered on being a team strength in 2010. He's back, but remaining stable will require help from the punter and the new set of return men. Even if Ryan's distance winds up being static, he can help by improving his directional kicks.
Rating: 6.5

- 2011 East Carolina Preview | 2011 East Carolina Offense
- 2011 East Carolina Defense | 2011 East Carolina Depth Chart
- East Carolina Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006