2008 East Carolina Preview - Defense
East Carolina LB Quentin Cotton
East Carolina LB Quentin Cotton
Posted Apr 23, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - East Carolina Pirate Defense

East Carolina Pirates

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN East Carolina Preview | 2008 East Carolina Offense
- 2008 East Carolina Defense | 2008 East Carolina Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN East Carolina Preview | 2006 CFN East Carolina Preview 

What you need to know: Nine starters are back from a defense that excelled at takeaways and is absolutely loaded in the trenches. All four of last year’s starters and nine lettermen comprise a defensive line that’ll send a couple of kids to the NFL and has the depth and girth of many ACC programs. While Zack Slate and C.J. Wilson apply the pressure from the outside, Jay Ross, Khalif Mitchell, and Linval Joseph are 300-pounders that clog running lanes on the inside. Although the Pirates have a chance to be special up front, the opposite is true on the last line of defense. The East Carolina secondary allows too many big plays through the air, lacking the cover corners to shut down the other team’s best receiver.   

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Van Eskridge, 104
Sacks: Zack Slate, 4.5
Interceptions: J.J. Milbrook, 3

Star of the defense: Junior DE C.J. Wilson
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Darryl Reynolds
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Linval Joseph
Best pro prospect: Wilson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Junior FS Van Eskridge 2) Wilson 3) Senior DE Zack Slate
Strength of the defense: The front seven, overall depth  
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, the corners

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: If the defense has any issues this season, it’s unlikely to be related to the defensive line. It’s loaded. East Carolina brings back a whopping nine linemen who lettered last season and six who started as least four games. There aren’t any true stars, although the ends, senior Zack Slate and junior C.J. Wilson, both earned spots on the All-Conference USA Second Team. The 6-5, 221-pound Slate is a speedy, high-motor guy who gives the Pirates the flexibility to use him as a traditional end or as an outside linebacker. In his best season to date, he had 49 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks as a junior.

Now up to 6-4 and 271 pounds, it’s hard to imagine that Wilson came to East Carolina as a linebacker. He has emerged as the program’s best pure pass rusher, racking up 36 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and a team-high seven sacks in his first year as a full-timer. Downright unstoppable at times, he’s going to be a force throughout the second half of his career.

The anchor of the run defense is 6-3, 306-pound junior tackle Jay Ross, a space-eater and a playmaker at the same time. Possessing the quickness, strength, and work ethic that every coach looks for in linemen, he broke in 2007 with 38 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and seven quarterback hurries. With continued progress, a spot on the all-league team awaits him.

There’s a battle taking place at the other tackle spot that’s currently being led by massive senior Brandon Setzer. After bouncing between the offensive and defensive line, the 6-6, 335-pounder has settled down where he can impact the run defense. If a nagging knee injury doesn’t get in the way, he could be a key cog in the run defense.

Projected Top Reserves: If not for a series of injuries, 6-5, 281-pound senior Marcus Hands would be one of the premier ends in the league. He’s got the size and the natural pass rushing ability of a future pro, but three shoulder surgeries, including one last year, have been major stumbling blocks. He sat out the spring, remaining cautiously optimistic that he’ll be at full strength for the opener with Virginia Tech.

Providing more depth on the outside will be 6-4, 246-pound junior Scotty Robinson, a two-time letterwinner who had 16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Quick and physical, he’ll be used as more of a situational pass rusher than an every down lineman.

The key backups on the inside, senior Khalif Mitchell and sophomore Linval Joseph, would start for plenty of schools. A 6-6, 306-pound transfer from North Carolina, he started six games a year ago, making 19 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks. He actually earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors, flashing the quickness of a tackle that actually played some end in Chapel Hill.

At 6-6 and 358 pounds, it’s to imagine the 6-6, 358-pound Joseph getting lost in any crowd, but his true freshman season didn’t the attention that was warranted. He surprised everyone in his debuting, making 40 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and a couple of fumble recoveries. While surprisingly quick for his size, he still needs to stay in shape and guard against poor conditioning.   

Watch Out For… Joseph’s weight. He has the potential to be a beast on the inside and even a future pro, but not if he can’t stay in shape. Joseph was outstanding in his first season, raising excitement that he could develop into one of the best interior linemen to ever play in Greenville.                                        
Strength: Depth and experience. The Pirates have depth and talent everywhere, especially if Hands finally fulfills his potential in his last year on campus. The rotation will spin like a top, keeping everyone fresh throughout the fall.    
Weakness: Getting pressure. For all of the talent that East Carolina houses on the front four, shouldn’t it be getting to the passer with more regularity? Two years ago, the Pirates were last in the league in sacks. Last season, they finished 60th nationally, reaching the quarterback just 27 times. The potential exists for this group to be far more productive in 2008.     
Outlook: No one in Conference USA boasts a better collection of talent on the defensive line. In fact, it’s not even close. The Pirates are deep and disruptive, which will boost the performance of the last lines of defense. To be the best unit among non-BCS programs, however, East Carolina has to become more productive, particularly with the pass rush.                
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: Third-leading tackler Fred Wilson has graduated, but East Carolina returns a couple of regulars and seven players who lettered a year ago. Leading the way is 6-2, 231-pound senior Pierre Bell, a thumper on the outside with the range to make plays all over the field. Injury prone throughout his career, he played through pain to make 97 tackles and five behind the line.

On the opposite side is 6-2, 224-pound senior Quentin Cotton, a steady performer and third-year starter. A terrific athlete who always plays to the whistle, he had 66 tackles and 11 tackles for loss, consistently getting pressure behind the line of scrimmage.

The battle on the inside is between juniors Jeremy Chambliss and Nick Johnson, who’ll continue their competition in August. Johnson held a lead coming out of spring, partially because Chambliss sat out the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. The 6-1, 215-pounder will try to maintain the top spot after making 28 stops a year ago and appearing in 11 games as a backup. Given an opportunity, he has the instincts and quickness to be productive in run defense.  

Projected Top Reserves: Chambliss took a backseat to Johnson in the spring, but only because he was physically unable to go. A year ago, he started four games, pitching in 38 tackles and three tackles for loss. Undersized at 6-0 and 227 pounds, he’s one of the team’s fastest defensive players and an asset in pass coverage.

Providing seasoned depth on the outside is sophomore Melvin Patterson and junior Lorenzo Osborne, each of whom started a game in 2007. Patterson made his transition from strong safety look smooth in the spring, flashing the size-speed combination that made the move possible. If he can add weight to his 6-3, 219-pound frame, he’ll be a fixture in the lineup no later than 2009.

The 6-3, 202-pound Osborne could drop a peg now that Bell is healthy, but still brings outstanding depth and experience to the corps. More than just a quality backup linebacker, he’s also one of the Pirates’ top special teams performers.

Watch Out For …fresh legs. From one to six, there isn’t that much separation among the linebackers on the two-deep. The depth will allow for the type of rotation that keeps everyone fresh and involved in the game.                                
Strength: Athleticism. All of the linebackers move like safeties, flashing the sideline-to-sideline speed needed to string out plays and make stops for negative yards.               
Weakness: Size. All of that speed and athletic ability comes at a price; the Pirates aren’t very big, averaging about 6-1 and 220 pounds, and are prone to getting bullied by lines that get to the second level quickly.                              
Outlook: While not littered with all-stars or future NFL types, the linebackers are a steady, reliable group of veterans who’ll help form one of Conference USA’s premier front sevens. The game-changing plays may escape them, but most ball carriers in the open field will not.                        
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: Former outside linebacker Van Eskridge has settled in nicely at free safety, leading the team with 104 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. The 6-0, 200-pound junior still hits like a linebacker, but needs to learn when to be patient and avoid going for the kill shot.

At strong safety, 6-0, 205-pound senior Leon Best is back after starting six games and impressing the staff with his play throughout spring. From humble beginnings as a walk-on, he has literally grown into a solid contributor, making a career-high 41 tackles and a pair of picks a year ago.

The corners represent an unsettled area and one of the biggest question marks on the team. Jerek Hewett has all but locked down one position after starting nine games and getting in on 49 tackles. The 5-11, 195-pound senior has played a lot of football for East Carolina, but those reps will diminish if he can’t dramatically tighten up his pass coverage skills.

The Pirates are cautiously optimistic that sophomore Darryl Reynolds is ready to handle a promotion in just his second season on campus. He impressed as a rookie, earning time in nine games and making 15 tackles. At 6-1 and 189 pounds, he has terrific size and physicality for the position to go along with improving cover skills. He lends hope to a unit that’s short on prosperity these days.  

Projected Top Reserves: The Pirates top cornerback off the bench is 5-10, 179-pound sophomore Travis Simmons, who, like Reynolds, played as a true freshman. In fact, he started four games and had 27 tackles. One of the fastest and most explosive athletes in the defensive backfield, he’s capable of unseating Hewett with a strong summer.

As productive as Eskridge has been, he’s being pushed at free safety by 5-9, 191-pound senior J.J. Millbrook, who hits much harder than his size might indicate. A three-game starter a year ago, he made the most of his opportunities, delivering 47 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three picks. While no superstar, he’s one of those blue-collar types who just makes plays whenever he gets on the field.

Also in the mix at safety is 6-0, 210-pound junior Chris Mattocks, a physical defender who earned five starts and made 39 tackles as a free safety. While the numbers may not be in his favor to start, he’s a plus coming off the bench and making plays on special teams.   

Watch Out For… the Pirates to make gains in pass defense, but remain an overall liability. There are too many veterans in the secondary and potential all-stars up front for the defense to duplicate last year’s results, when it finished 114th nationally against the pass.  
Strength: The safeties. Eskridge has blossomed into one of the league’s better players at the position, and Best is the type of defender the coaches can count on. Between them, they could have 175 tackles this fall.                 
Weakness: Cover skills. For a second straight year, the Pirates are going to labor to stop the pass. They’re soft in coverage, get beat downfield too often, and lack that one stopper who can neutralize the other team’s best receiver.             
Outlook: The Pirates should be better than last season, but a complete transformation is not going to happen. This is East Carolina biggest impediment to winning a league title, and opposing quarterbacks will be well aware of it.             
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Besides losing elite kick returner Chris Johnson to the NFL, don’t expect the special teams unit to change much from last year. Strong-legged junior Ben Hartman is back for his third year as the placekicker, trying to sharpen his accuracy. A year ago, he was just 13-of-22 on field goal attempts, converting just 8-of-15 from beyond 30 yards.

Also returning is linebacker-sized junior punter Matt Dodge, who did an outstanding job in his first year replacing Ryan Dougherty. The 6-2, 220-pound transfer from Appalachian State averaged 41.3 yards and was consistent on his directional kicks, placing 24 kicks inside the opponent’s 20.

Losing Johnson, who averaged a robust 28 yards a kickoff, hurts. His likely successor is sophomore Jonathan Williams, no stranger to special teams. As a first-year player, he averaged 22.3 yards on 14 returns.

Sophomore Dwayne Harris is the Pirates’ primary punt returner, looking to improve upon last year’s paltry numbers. He averaged just 8.1 yards a return for a unit that finished 77th nationally and ninth in the league in the category.

Watch Out For… Hartman’s development as the Pirate placekicker. Although he has the leg strength and experience to be one of the conference’s top kickers, consistency has eluded him. For a program that plays in plenty of close games, East Carolina needs its kicker to be clutch and more accurate than he’s been the last two seasons.                  
Strength: Dodge. A pleasant surprise a year ago, he’s solidified the situation at punter. He’s got good pop in his leg and will only get better with his fundamentals with more experience.       
Weakness: Coverage units. The Pirates were utterly brutal a year ago covering kicks, finishing 110th on punts and 113th on kickoffs, allowing a whopping five touchdowns.   
Outlook: Outside of Dodge, the Pirates are going to be in trouble. Hartman is inconsistent. The coverage teams are awful. And Johnson leaves a gaping void in the return game. If assistant Vernon Hargreaves can’t whip this unit into shape in a hurry, it could cost East Carolina a game or two in the fall.             
Rating: 4.5


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