2009 East Carolina Preview - Defense
East Carolina DT Jay Ross
East Carolina DT Jay Ross
Posted Jul 16, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - East Carolina Pirate Defense

East Carolina Pirates

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN East Carolina Preview |
2009 East Carolina Offense
- 2009 East Carolina Defense | 2009 East Carolina Depth Chart
- 2008 ECU Preview | 2007 ECU Preview | 2006 ECU Preview 

What you 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.   

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Nick Johnson, 102
Sacks: C.J. Wilson, 10.5
Interceptions: Emanuel Davis, Van Eskridge, 4

Star of the defense: Senior DE C.J. Wilson
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Scotty Robinson
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

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
: 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 recoveries.

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.

Although 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.
Strength: The 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 position.
Weakness: 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.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters
: 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.

The newest 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.

Projected Top 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 the edge.

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.
Strength: 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.               
Weakness: Size. 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.                              
Outlook: While 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.                        
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters
: 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.   

The newcomer 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.

After 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 Pirate secondary.

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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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?
Outlook: East 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.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters
: 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 stretch.

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.
Strength: 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.
Outlook: A 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.
Rating: 7


Related Stories
2009 East Carolina Preview – Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 16, 2009
2009 East Carolina Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 16, 2009
2009 CFN East Carolina Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 16, 2009

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