2012 East Carolina Preview – Defense
East Carolina NT Michael Brooks
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - East Carolina Pirate Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: There's cautious optimism that the Pirates D will build on last year's progress now that the team is set to enter its second season in coordinator Brian Mitchell's 3-4 alignment. The idea was to bolster depth along the D-line, where there was none, while getting more athletic linebackers on the field. On some levels, it worked as the team gave up 106 less yards and 12 points per game less than in 2010. Basically, ECU wants to get to the point where it was in 2008 and 2009, when the front seven was a key component of back-to-back Conference USA titles. The anchor along the line will once again be NT Michael Brooks, a 6-3, 313-pounder who creates a nice push from the inside. At linebacker, the inside-outside combination of Jeremy Grove and Derrell Johnson, respectively, aim to wreak havoc in very different ways. Grove was a rookie sensation in 2011, making a team-high 122 tackles. Johnson is a converted defensive end, with the size and diverse skill set to support the run and the pass. The secondary, which was already going to be a weak spot, will miss the coverage ability of CB Emanuel Davis. While Damon Magazu will lend a hand from free safety, it'll be up to seniors Leonard Paulk and Jacobi Jenkins, and JUCO transfer Adonis Armstrong to solidify a shaky situation at cornerback.
Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Jeremy Grove
Tackles: Jeremy Grove, 122
Sacks: Derrell Johnson, 3
Interceptions: Damon Magazu, 4
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Leonard Paulk
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Derrell Johnson
Best pro prospect: Senior NT Michael Brooks
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Grove, 2) Junior FS Damon Magazu, 3) Brooks
Strength of the defense: Depth and experience, the linebackers, safeties
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, cornerbacks, front line pressure, third-down stops
The Pirates are set to begin their second year in a 3-4 system, which should help make everyone within it a little more comfortable. The headliner of the three-man front is NT Michael Brooks, an extremely active 6-3, 313-pounder. Although he possesses the size and strength to help anchor the run defense, he also has the moves and quick first step to beat his man off the snap. Testament to his athletic ability, he led all linemen with 55 tackles, including 5.5 that were made for minus yards. After being overlooked in 2011, he ought to get strong consideration for All-Conference USA honors.
One of the end spots is set with 6-4, 259-pound junior Matt Milner , the team's best all-around edge rusher. The 4.0 student has cleared all kinds of hurdles to get to this point, including managing his diabetes and playing through a painful right hip injury throughout 2011. He only had 37 tackles, four stops for loss and a half-sack, numbers he can easily top when at full strength.
The end position opposite Milner won't be decided until the summer. Juniors Lee Pegues and Justin Dixon played to a draw during the spring. The 6-2, 290-pound Pegues is built more like a strongside end, making 26 tackles as a two-game starter in 2011. Dixon is a converted outside linebacker, a 6-1, 264-pounder who'll provide quite a bit more speed and explosiveness on the pass rush.
Watch Out For .... the health of John Lattimore . The Pirates were excited about the arrival of their JUCO transfer in 2011, but he injured his leg in fall camp, and never played a down. Still not quite 100%, the staff hopes its 6-4, 277-pounder will be able to provide some depth on the outside.
Strength: Proven players. The rotation up front is comprised of juniors and seniors who've gotten plenty of reps over the years at this level. The combination of Brooks and Milner, assuming he remains healthy, gives the Pirates a pair of all-star contenders on the first line of defense.
Weakness: The pass rush. Only four Pirates registered at least two sacks in 2011. All are now linebackers. In fact, Dixon's 1.5 sacks last fall top all other returning defensive linemen. East Carolina will still bring heat from the second level, but would be aided immensely if the front three can generate more of a push than it did last fall.
Outlook: Milner is the key here. If he can recapture his 2010 form, the Pirates will have the troops to be pretty feisty and diverse in the trenches. The four primary members of the rotation own nine combined letters, and Brooks is capable of attracting a smattering of NFL scouts to Greenville this fall to watch him perform.
After struggling a bit to fill out the two-deep a year ago, East Carolina believes it's a lot closer to having the depth it desires at linebacker. The program caught a huge break with the development of Jeremy Grove as a rookie at one of the two inside positions. The Conference USA Defensive Freshman of the Year collected a team-high 122 tackles, displaying good quickness, uncommon instincts for such a young player and an insatiable desire to succeed. The 6-1, 233-pounder added weight in the offseason, which should aid his ability to defend the run and avoid getting dinged up.
Battling it out to join Grove on the inside are 6-3, 241-pound junior Kyle Tudor and 6-0, 251-pound senior Daniel Drake . Tudor is a rugged run defender, with substantial experience from a year ago. He played in eight games in 2011, starting four, and was in on 58 tackles. His potential was on full display in the Nov. 12 UTEP game, making 14 stops. Drake is a tough, hard-nosed veteran who'll use his leverage to get underneath a blocker's pads. The Marshall transfer finished third on the team with 74 tackles, while starting nine games in 2011.
The big news on the outside is that 6-1, 264-pound junior Derrell Johnson has moved back a level after starting two seasons at defensive end. He's a perfect fit for an outside linebacker in a 3-4, blending good size and strength with excellent speed and burst. A year after making 39 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and three sacks, he'll be far more dangerous in space, where he'll be far less lightly to get tied up in traffic.
Closing in on the other outside job is 6-2, 251-pound sophomore Maurice Falls , who started last year's finale with Marshall. He finished the year with just eight tackles and a pair of sacks, but has impressed the staff with his quickness and agility.
Watch Out For .... Johnson to flourish into one of the defense's most disruptive players. It's about time that the program wised up and got No. 56 to a spot on the field where he wasn't constantly battling linemen 40 pounds heavier than him. With a chance to freelance, Johnson is capable of leading this team in sacks and stops behind the line.
Strength: Depth. It took more than a year, but East Carolina feels it has reached a point where it can go two-deep with quality linebackers. A whopping 10 Pirates have earned letters in Greenville, while seven, including seasoned reserves Chris Baker and Jake Geary , started games a year ago.
Weakness: Consistency in run defense. The Pirates improved in 2011, but still yielded174 yards a game and 4.5 yards a carry. The linebackers must continue doing a better job of shedding blockers, filling lanes and wrapping up in space.
Outlook: The Pirates are improving at linebacker, which is a big deal for a defense predicated on speed and pursuit from the second level. Grove figures to only get better, and Johnson will be a welcome addition to the unit. If East Carolina is going to be vulnerable, it'll be at the other outside spot, where Falls will need to evolve in order to keep up with his peers.
After making considerable strides in pass defense in 2011, East Carolina will look to keep the momentum going without its all-star cornerback, Emanuel Davis. The Pirates' most experienced corner is now Leonard Paulk at the boundary. Though he only started one game, and made 28 tackles, the 5-11, 197-pounder has earned a reputation as a hard hitter who'll jam opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage. He has proved his toughness on special teams, making 14 stops in 2011, but still must show he can lock down in coverage.
The battle at field corner between 6-0, 185-pound Jacobi Jenkins and 5-10, 181-pound junior Adonis Armstrong is going to be a close one in August. Like Paulk, Jenkins started a single game in 2011, chipping in 15 tackles and four pass breakups. The converted wide receiver has good speed and hops, but has just now begun getting comfortable as a possible starter in the secondary. Armstrong is in his first year out of Hinds (Miss.) Community College, looking to use the summer to get more comfortable with the speed at this level.
Junior FS Damon Magazu is coming off a breakout year in which he finished second on the team with 80 tackles, and was tops with four interceptions and three fumble recoveries. He's a high-energy, big-play defensive back who had a knack for being around the ball a lot in 2011. The 5-11, 203-pounder is not an elite athlete in the secondary, but will compensate with keen instincts and a passion to get his nose in the mix.
Strong safety, like field corner, has yet to produce a clear-cut starter. Sophomore Lamar Ivey holds the one-year edge in experience, having played sparingly in 10 games a year ago. He's young and raw, but at 6-1 and 187 pounds has a long and lean frame that'll continue to fill out. Junior Godfrey Thompson is another of the JUCO transfers expected to contribute immediately. He, like Armstrong, spent the past two seasons at Hinds (Miss.) Community College, auditioning for the FBS. He's a hard-hitting 6-0, 210-pounder who looks to intimidate receivers.
Watch Out For .... the final pecking order. Competition in the secondary promises to be intense in fall camp as the coaching staff searches for its best combination on the two-deep. It moved closer to a firm depth chart in the spring, but still wants to see more from its defensive backs in August.
Strength: Tackling in the open field. At East Carolina, the cornerbacks wrap up like safeties, and the safeties pack the punch of some linebackers. Everyone hits in this secondary, a boon to the run defense and a concern for the other team's pass-catchers.
Weakness: Cornerback. The Pirates are dealing with the loss of two key pass defenders, Davis and Derek Blacknall. In their place will step a trio of players with very little experience in the starting lineup. East Carolina is going to be vulnerable through, especially in a league noted for its wide-open passing attacks.
Outlook: After turning the corner last season, the pass defense might be ready to revert back to its 2010 form this fall. Magazu is a scrappy playmaker, but after the free safety, East Carolina is comprised of marginal defensive backs with only a modest amount of experience in Greenville. Unless the transfers wind up being really, really good, the Pirates will be easy pickings for the sharper quarterbacks on the schedule.
For the second time since 2006, East Carolina is being forced to replace its punter and placekicker at the same time. Welcome to Greenville, Kirk Doll. The battle at placekicker has sophomore Warren Harvey out in front entering the summer. While he has no experience yet, the staff was encouraged by his development in the spring.
The competition at punter, on the other hand, isn't nearly as close to being decided. Junior Trent Tignor and senior Phil McNaughton will resume their duel in the summer. The former walk-on and Australia native McNaughton has the advantage of game experience, punting nine times in two games a year ago for an average of 38.7 yards. Besides competing for the punting job, Tignor has been the team's holder for the past three seasons.
Watch Out For… the competition in the return game. The Pirates were weak here a year ago, especially on the more important kickoff returns, where they ranked 108th nationally. Now that Lance Lewis and Michael Bowman have graduated, Doll is in need of new returners to ignite his special teams unit.
Strength: Tignor, the holder. Yeah, the situation is this dire for the East Carolina special teams unit. The junior is the closest thing to a sure-thing in Greenville, an experienced holder on field goals and extra point attempts.
Weakness: The coverage teams. Doll was brought back to his alma mater for myriad reasons, but closing the holes in the coverage units tops the list. The Pirates were last nationally in punt return yardage defense, and yielded four special teams touchdowns in 2011.
Outlook: It'll get overlooked as most people focus on the competition at quarterback, but East Carolina must correct its special teams flaws before getting serious about a return to the postseason. The unit was a shambles last year, and now must develop replacements at punter and placekicker. If the assistants can pull this off, all of them will deserve a hefty raise.
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