Preview 2009 - Defense
2009 CFN East Carolina Preview |
2009 East Carolina
2009 East Carolina
2009 East Carolina
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need to know:
What does East Carolina do after delivering its best season
defensively in over a decade? How about get better? Eight
starters and 25 lettermen return to a D that led Conference USA
in scoring defense, total defense, and takeaways. Aside from
depth, which could become a problem as the season develops,
there are no glaring weaknesses on this side of the ball. It all
begins up front, where DE C.J. Wilson leads a defensive line
that could produce three NFL Draft picks in the next two years.
With the pressure created by these guys, it’s going to be
difficult to move the ball through the air on a Pirate secondary
that’s fast and athletic, and knows what to do when the ball is
in its hands. FS Van Eskridge and LB Nick Johnson are the stars
of a back seven that’s going to produce a bunch of big plays
again this season.
Tackles: Nick Johnson, 102
Sacks: C.J. Wilson, 10.5
Interceptions: Emanuel Davis, Van Eskridge, 4
of the defense:
Senior DE C.J. Wilson
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Emanuel Davis
Best pro prospect: Wilson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Wilson, 2) FS Van
Eskridge, 3) DE Scotty Robinson
Strength of the defense: Third Down D, Line
Weakness of the defense: Depth, Safety Beyond Eskridge
If you put different sweaters and helmets on this group of
defensive linemen, you’d swear they played in one of the six
major conferences. Yup, they really are ACC-caliber. It all
begins with All-Conference USA end
C.J. Wilson, one of the country’s premier pass rushers. For the
third straight, he harassed opponents to the tune of 70 tackles,
18.5 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks. Now, 6-4 and 271 pounds,
he’s big enough to stop the run like a tackle, yet quick enough
to have squatter’s rights in the other team’s backfields.
With Wilson seeing constant double-teams, it’ll be up to
6-4, 250-pound senior
Scotty Robinson to adequately replace Zack Slate on the
other side. He’s a three-time lettermen, but hasn’t had
significant starts in two years and hasn’t shown a regular
ability to get a hand on the quarterback. He has to at least
match his four career sacks, one coming last year, and make
teams pay for underestimating him.
As good as the Pirates
are at end, they might be even better on the inside. Senior
Jay Ross is back for
his third year as a starter, clogging running lanes and shooting
the gaps like an outside rusher. Extremely quick for a 6-3,
306-pounder, he also has the power and the motor to out work
bigger linemen. In a table-setting junior year, he chalked up 48
tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and two fumble
Next to Ross is massive junior
Linval Joseph, who,
like Ross, earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors in
2008. A dramatically trimmed down 6-6, 300-pounder, he’s in
better condition and much lighter on his feet than when he
arrived, yet still possesses the raw power to bull rush his man
into the backfield. A nine-game starter, he scratched the
surface of his potential with 43 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss,
and 2.5 sacks.
Projected Top Reserves: For a while, it looked as 6-2,
260-pound redshirt freshman
Allen Crowder was going to play in his rookie year before an injury
derailed that thought. Much stronger and tougher than his size
might indicate, he’s capable of playing the inside, but will be
used as a caddy for Robinson at defensive end.
he certainly doesn’t look anything like a tackle, junior
Josh Smith will be
used on the interior as a backup to Ross. While only 6-1 and 240
pounds, he has the heart, determination, and motor of a
350-pounder. A transfer from Western Carolina, he conjured up
images up Slate a year ago, scrapping his way to 18 tackles, two
tackles for loss, and a sack.
Watch Out For…
how Robinson adapts to an expanded role. It’s one of the biggest
keys on defense, if not the entire team. A nice athlete, with
loads of experience, he has to provide steady pressure from the
opposite side of Wilson. If he’s making penetration, there may
not be an offensive line of the schedule, including West
Virginia or Virginia Tech, that’ll contain these guys.
front four. Wilson is a legitimate All-America candidate. Ross
and Joseph are bona fide All-Conference USA tackles. That’s
three-quarters of the defensive line posing for their all-star
photos, an unheard of level of talent at such an important
Depth. Sure, three linemen with starting experience are back,
but where did all of the veteran backups go? The Pirates are
frighteningly thin on the second unit, relying on a slew of
players with zero experience at this level. Everything will be
fine, provided none of these kids get forced on to the field
before they’re ready.
Outlook: No one in Conference USA boasts a better
collection of talent on the defensive line. In fact, it might
not even be that close. East Carolina is experienced and
disruptive on the front four, which will make everyone behind
that first line of defense, especially the secondary, much
better. The development of those second-stringers bears watching
for 2009 and beyond.
Although two key regulars from 2008 are out of eligibility,
comfort can be found in the return of 6-1, 215-pound senior
Nick Johnson, a
stalwart at middle linebacker. Though undersized for the
position, he took flight in his starting debut, racking up a
team-high 102 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and two
interceptions. He plays with exceptional range and keen
instincts, which allow him to spend most of his afternoons
around the football.
The leader on the outside will be
6-0, 227-pound senior Jeremy Chambliss one of those players who benefited when team depth
took a hit last fall. A quality athlete, with three letters and
13 starts behind him, he brings a little more pop and
physicality to the corps. In his most productive season as a
Pirate, he notched 60 tackles and six tackles for loss, showing
a knack for getting into the backfield.
regular on the unit will be 6-0, 210-pound senior
Chris Mattocks, a
former defensive back and one of the program’s best special
teams performers. Actually, he did start five games at safety in
2007, but was strictly a reserve last fall, making 29 stops in
14 games. More physical than his size might indicate, he’s
especially valuable when drifting back into pass coverage.
Reserves: East Carolina’s top reserve among the
linebackers will be 6-3, 202-pound junior
Lorenzo Osborne, who
took an unconventional redshirt season in 2008 after lettering
in his first two years on campus. With his size and speed, he
could be an ideal candidate to be turned loose on the blitz from
Another viable and athletic option on the
outside for the Pirates will be 6-1, 225-pound sophomore
Cliff Perryman. He
endured somewhat of a baptism under fire in his first year,
starting four of nine games and making 16 tackles. Very rangy
from sideline-to-sideline, he gives the coaches option on how
best to utilize him.
Watch Out For …
a little more blitzing than last season. With three athletic
seniors manning the linebacker spots, East Carolina is poised to
turn them loose on occasion, a nasty combination of pressure
with that veteran front four.
Athletic ability. Yeah, they’re not very big, but all of the
linebackers move like safeties, displaying the
sideline-to-sideline speed and playmaking ability needed to
string out plays and make stops for negative yards.
All of that speed and athleticism comes at a price; the Pirates
aren’t very big on the second line of defense, averaging about
6-1 and 220 pounds, and are prone to getting treated like rag
dolls by lines that get to the second level quickly.
not dotted with slam dunk all-stars or future NFL types, the
linebackers are a steady, reliable collection of veterans,
who’ll help form one of Conference USA’s top front sevens. The
game-changing plays may escape them, but most ball carriers in
the open field will not. Johnson is an exception, with the skill
set and intensity to end his college career with honors.
Five players who started a game in 2008 return, lending hope
that East Carolina will once again house the league’s stingiest
pass defense. The headliner of the group will once again be 6-0,
200-pound senior FS Van Eskridge, last year’s defensive MVP and All-Conference USA first
teamer. A complete player at the position, he’ll deliver the
payload like a linebacker and cover receivers with the deft of a
corner. A genuine playmaker, with a penchant for quickly
diagnosing plays, he’s started the last three seasons, making 97
tackles and picking off four passes last fall.
at strong safety will be 5-11, 190-pound sophomore
Derek Blacknall, who
mostly played on special teams in his debut and had eight stops.
A good all-around athlete, with the coverage skills of a corner,
he needs to prove he can the starting assignment and the
physical component of playing this position.
starting a dozen games a year ago, 6-1, 195-pound junior
Dekota Marshall is
poised to be the program’s top cornerback.
He’s always had the size to jam receivers and support in
run defense, but he began to turn the corner as a cover guy last
year, cutting down on blown assignments. He wound up making 41
tackles and breaking up six passes, setting the stage for what
could be an all-star year.
Marshall is likely to be
joined at corner by 5-10, 179-pound junior
Travis Simmons, a
starter in the final four games of 2008. He held up extremely
well down the stretch, finishing with 30 tackles and a couple of
picks, including one for a touchdown in the Conference USA title
game. One of the fastest and most explosive athletes of this
group, he’s capable of really blossoming in his first full
season in the lineup.
Projected Top Reserves:
Sophomore Emanuel Davis
has been unable to penetrate the lineup at cornerback, but that
does not mean he won’t be able to crack the rotation at
cornerback. The 5-11, 190-pounder had a tremendous debut in
Greenville, starting five games, and making 45 tackles and four
picks, en route to Freshman All-America honors. No matter where
he begins the season, he’s a huge part of the future in the
Lurking just behind Simmons is 6-1,
189-pound junior Darryl Reynolds, a two-game starter in 2008, with a letter in each
of the last two seasons. While prone to bouts of inconsistency
in pass defense, he is improving and has the size to match up
with some of the league’s rangier wide receivers.
Watch Out For…
it to be difficult keeping Davis on the bench. Yeah, he was No.
3 on the depth chart coming out of spring, but that’s not going
to last. For such a young player in 2008, he showed the poise
and coverage skills of a future lockdown corner.
Ball-hawking. The Pirates have located their booty—opposing
quarterbacks’ passes. No one in Conference USA picked off more
in 2008, a trend that should continue with this group of
athletic and instinctive defensive backs.
Safety after Eskridge. Eskridge is fantastic, but he’s just one
guy. East Carolina will need a lot more help from the rest of
the safeties, too few of whom have any relevant experience at
this level. Is Blacknall ready to be the starting strong safety
after being a backup corner as a freshman?
Carolina had one of the league’s toughest pass defenses last
fall. Now that UCF has been gutted by graduation, the Pirates
will stand alone in that category in 2009. Collectively, they
form an attacking unit that creates turnovers and keeps the play
in front of them. With support from a terrific pass rush, few
will throw with success on them this season.
All of the parts are back for an East Carolina special teams
unit that will again be among the best in Conference USA. Senior
Ben Hartman set a
school-record with 21 field goals a year ago, but missed 10,
continuing a trend of inconsistency, especially beyond the
40-yard line. In his defense, he was bothered by a hip injury in
the early going and connected on 8-of-9 field goals down the
At punter, senior
Matt Dodge ranked No.
14 nationally with an average just below 44 yards. Not only does
he display outstanding drive and distance on his kicks, but his
hang time has improved and his directional kicks have been an
asset for the Pirate D.
The return game will again be
comprised of some combination of junior
Dwayne Harris and
sophomore Michael Bowman
on kickoffs, and sophomore
Darryl Freeney and
junior Travis Simmons
on punts. While the Pirates would like to spice up the return
game, they did finish No. 2 in the league in punt returns and
No. 4 in kickoff returns.
Watch Out For…
Hartman’s development as the placekicker. Is he the guy who
began the year 13-of-22 or the one who was almost flawless over
the final few games? A reliable Hartman cannot be overstated
since East Carolina plays in so many tight games, including
three overtime affairs in 2008 alone.
Dodge. He’s been a pleasant surprise since transferring from
Appalachian State two years ago, single-handedly solidifying the
situation at punter. He’s got the pop in his leg and now the
fundamentals to pin opponents deep in their own territory and
boost an already stingy defense.
Weakness: Coverage units. The Pirates came a long way in
this area a year ago, but there’s still some room for growth. In
particular, a year after finishing 113th nationally in kickoff
coverage defense, they were 83rd, allowing a touchdown and an
average of 22 yards a return.
glaring weakness at this time last year, the special teams are
on the verge of becoming a team strength. Hartman will contend
for all-conference honors and Dodge could be a fringe
All-American with another season of growth. Remember, it was a
blocked punt that propelled East Carolina to the upset of
Virginia Tech last September.