Preview 2008 - Defense
2008 CFN East Carolina Preview |
2008 East Carolina
2008 East Carolina
2007 CFN East Carolina Preview |
2006 CFN East
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
Van Eskridge, 104
Sacks: Zack Slate, 4.5
Interceptions: J.J. Milbrook, 3
of the defense:
Junior DE C.J. Wilson
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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