The objective for East Carolina’s coaching staff when it came to the defensive recruiting class of 2017 was crystal clear — sign as many players as possible to immediately bolster a unit ranked among the nation’s worst last season.
The Pirates were near the bottom nationally in nearly every major statistical category in 2016. They were 100th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense, giving up 452.8 yards per game. ECU was 110th in scoring defense (36.1 points), 111th against the rush (228.5 and 34 touchdowns), 62nd in pass defense (224.3) and dead last in quarterback sacks (8).
In order to improve those figures, the Pirates tapped into the junior college ranks to sign four defenders who can hopefully contribute right away. The quartet should make an impact on all three levels of the defense from the front line, to linebacker and the secondary.
The large number of defensive line signees (five) may be an indication the Pirates will be playing a more of a traditional four-man front in the near future after running a 3-4 alignment the last few seasons.
For a closer look at how those players and others factor into the East Carolina program, here’s our annual position-by-position report card on the defensive recruits and program personnel evaluation as we head into spring practice.
Please note that all class designations referred to below indicate the player’s status for the 2016 season.
DEFENSIVE END A
WHAT THEY NEEDED: This was an area of focus for the Class of 2018, even though the Pirates lost just one player at the end positions via graduation. The initial target was three, but the Pirates exceeded that number with talent for the present and future.
WHO SIGNED: The end signees feature two junior college transfers and a pair of long, tall high school graduates.
Brandon Henderson, a 6-foot-5, 275-pounder from Greenwood, SC, is one of those inspirational stories — a guy who refused to give up on his dream to play college football. Henderson was cut twice trying to make the junior college team at Northeast Mississippi as a walk-on. But instead of quitting, he attended a combine at Georgia Military College where he was noticed and given a chance to play for the Bulldogs. Henderson made the most of the opportunity, producing 32 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and two sacks as a sophomore. Multiple programs pursued Henderson, including Houston, Kansas, Marshall, Northern Illinois and Western Kentucky. All those schools offered, while Georgia and Texas invited him for official visits down the stretch.
Tyree Owens, from Oviedo, FL, is one of the jewels of the recruiting class. He was originally a highly regarded signee at West Virginia, but when things didn’t work out there he enrolled at Copiah-Lincoln (MS) Community College. The 6-4, 270-pounder displayed enough skills in eight games at Copiah-Lincoln last season that schools such as Auburn, Houston, Mississippi State, Texas A&M extended scholarship offers.
For the future, ECU signed 6-4, 215-pound Taijh Alston from Vass and 6-5, 275-pound Kennan Solomon from Roxboro. Alston enjoyed a big senior season at Union Pines High, where he made 96 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks to earn all-conference and all-region honors. The Pirates landed him over offers from Appalachian State, Charlotte, Miami of Ohio and N.C. State. Solomon was a signing day addition to the class, who was the Pac 6 4-A Conference Defensive Player of the Year as as senior. He earned that honor by collecting 20 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Coastal Carolina and Miami of Ohio were among the others that offered Solomon.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Henderson and Owens are players hungry to prove themselves after overcoming setbacks and obstacles during their careers to get to East Carolina. They are hard-core pass rushers who should immediately improve ECU’s sack and quarterback pressure statistics. Owens will get a head start toward earning playing time by participating in spring practice.
Alston and Solomon are long, athletic players who hopefully can be redshirted next season so they can develop more physically. But with a few more pounds and a year in the system, the sky is the limit for this duo.
MONTGOMERY ON HENDERSON: “We think he will provide us some immediate help with pass rush responsibilities. It took a lot in recruiting him because people were all over him in the last three to four weeks.”
MONTGOMERY ON OWENS: “He is going to be a big-time prospect who will play well here. I am excited that we were able to bring in so many body types that get into that 6-4, 285-pound range so that we can add length on the interior and expand those gaps.”
MONTGOMERY ON ALSTON: “His distinguishing characteristic is length. He will provide immediate help for us in the pass rush.”
MONTGOMERY ON SOLOMON: “He was a late add to the class that we were trying to keep quiet. He represents a change in our defensive linemen. We have tired to bring in more length in order to rush the passer, bat down balls and stop the run.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: As good as ECU’s defensive line class turned out to be, it would have been even better had the Pirates been able to hang onto Marques Ford from Jones Community College and Blake McClain from Northeast Mississippi Community College. Both are dynamic junior college defensive end talents who were pursued by many major college programs before making verbal commitments to ECU in November. But days after Ford’s pledge, the former Rutgers player was named in a lawsuit accusing him and another former Black Knights player of sexual assault. ECU understandably decided to part ways with Ford based on that information. McClain spent a season at South Carolina before transferring to Northeast. He committed to the Pirates after making an official visit to Greenville in November. But just 24 hours before national signing day he dropped out of the class. Neither Ford or McClain have signed with another school.
WHO’S BACK: Three players with starting experience in ECU’s 3-4 alignment are scheduled to return. Senior Demage Bailey started 10 of 12 games at one defensive end and made 19 tackles. Junior Justin Brown started the first four games at the opposite end, but was in and out of the lineup from there. Brown wound up appearing in all 12 games and starting six. Senior Mike Myers, who played in 10 games overall, also logged starts against Central Florida and South Florida in Brown’s place at end.
What positions that trio and other returnees like sophomore Jalen Price (nine games in 2016), junior Shaun James (12 games), senior end Randall Anderson (3) and redshirt freshman Raequan Purvis will wind up playing will be more clear as spring practice unfolds. Price, a 6-2, 290-pounder, could be one of the contenders to take over at nose tackle.
WHO’S GONE: The Pirates didn’t lose anyone at the end spots who saw significant playing time other than Fred Presley, who did start the final game at one end. But the majority of Presley’s playing time occurred at nose tackle.
NEEDS FOR 2018: Even with the influx of new defensive line talent in the 2017 class, ECU will need to keep an eye out for quality end prospects. Six potential ends will be leaving the program over the next two seasons, which makes adding two more in the ’18 class to start replacing those players a priority. Already in the Pirates’ cross hairs with offers are Alim McNeill, a 6-2, 262-pounder from Raleigh’s Sanderson High, 6-5, 245-pound Joseph Boletepeli from Raleigh Millbrook, 6-4, 246-pound Javeon Becton from Virginia Beach and 6-3, 236-pound Trey Love from Southeast Guilford High in Greensboro.
NOSE TACKLE C+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates lose both the players who started every game at nose tackle in 2016, but brought in two potential tackles with last year’s freshman class. Just for depth purposes, signing at least one in the ’17 class was necessary.
WHO SIGNED: Ja-Quane Nelson is a 6-3, 280-pounder from High Point Central High School, the same program that produced former ECU defensive lineman Jonathan White. Nelson was credited with 36 tackles and nine sacks during his senior year to earn all-conference and all-region accolades. He committed to ECU in July over offers from Charlotte, Hampton and Murray State.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: High Point Central coach Wayne Jones favorably compared Nelson to White, but notes Nelson is a bigger and stronger version at this stage. Nelson is so athletic Jones said he could have played tight end if needed. But he’s still a raw talent and will need some time to develop at ECU.
MONTGOMERY ON NELSON: “He is an athletic defensive lineman who will give us some pass rush on the inside to help stop the run. We are excited to see what he brings to the table.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU made a run at Mississippi State tackle commit and Albemarle native Lee Autry in November. The interest on Autry’s part was significant enough that he made an official visit to Greenville on Nov. 12. But in the end Autry, who played for Itawamba Community College last season, stuck with his pledge and signed with the Bulldogs.
WHO’S BACK: Nobody that made a start at nose tackle will return in 2017, but at least three players are back who have experience at the position. Senior Mike Myers, sophomore Jalen Price and sophomore Alex Turner have logged time there. Price, who appeared in nine games last year mostly at end, and Turner (seven games) appear to be the frontrunners for the position heading into the spring practice.
WHO’S GONE: Fred Presley and Demetri McGill were two of the most experienced defensive linemen in ECU history. Presley played in 48 games over the last four years for the Pirates while making 21 starts. McGill appeared in 39 games and also started 21 times during that same span. They played both end and nose tackle, but most of their work last season occurred inside. Presley was the most productive defensive lineman on the team with 27 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. McGill was right behind him with 23 tackles and three tackles for loss.
NEEDS FOR 2018: Depending on how ECU approaches defense moving forward, this could be a major or minor priority. If the Pirates stick with the 3-4, signing one tackle is all they really need since some of the ends may eventually develop into tackles. But if the transition to a four-man front occurs, the need increases significantly to two or three. Two big ones already targeted are 6-4, 280-pound Austin Smith from McDonough, GA, and Kelijiha Brown, a 6-3, 308-pounder from Saluda, SC.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER C+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The goal was to sign two to maintain the roster balance at outside linebacker, although only one of the two graduation losses at the position was significant.
WHO SIGNED: Ben Norris played a major role in putting the program at Myers Park in Charlotte back on the map. The 6-3, 220-pounder helped the Mustangs match the school record for single-season wins as a senior (11-2 was best since 1983) and became the school’s first player since 2001 to be name to North Carolina’s squad for the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas all-star game. Norris was also named the Southwestern 4-A Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. Coastal Carolina, Elon and Georgetown were other schools that offered Norris.
Outside linebacker will also probably be where Bruce Bivens of Houston, TX, begins his career at ECU. Bivens (6-0, 220) was an all-state 6-A choice as a senior at Davis High where he made 87 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. Bivens first committed to Fresno State in July, but when the Pirates came on strong with an offer in November he flipped his pledge to the Pirates on Dec. 15.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Norris is an old-school player who is always around the football. We see him developing into a guy who consistently makes seven to eight tackles a game. Because he’s already enrolled at ECU, we imagine him on the field next fall in a special teams capacity.
Bivens is a fast, fiery competitor and an explosive athlete who is known for creating big plays. He’s also versatile enough that he could move to inside linebacker if the need arises.
MONTGOMERY ON NORRIS: “He is a versatile linebacker who plays extremely well in space. His athleticism and size allows us to insert him into some of our rush packages. We think he is a guy who you will hear his name quite a bit going forward.”
MONTGOMERY ON BIVENS: “A lot of people may not know about this kid. He is clearly the most explosive player in this class. He is a dynamic 200-meter guy and we look for him to have a major, major role here.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Really, no one. ECU offered maybe one other outside linebacker, but the interest never really advanced very far on either side.
WHO’S BACK: Some of ECU’s most athletic players return at the two outside positions. Senior Kiante Anderson started six games at the strongside spot a year ago, making 20 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. He split duties there with junior Yiannis Bowden, who also made two of his seven starts at rush spot. Bowden collected 42 tackles and tied for the team lead with 7.5 tackles for loss.
Also making one start was sophomore Kendall Futrell, who was one of four true freshmen to suit up for the Pirates on defense last season.
C.J. Maybe, a sophomore who played in one game last season, plus redshirt freshmen Chance Purvis and Aaron Ramseur are others expected to challenge for backup roles in spring practice.
WHO’S GONE: If not for a lingering shoulder problem that sidelined him for two games, rush linebacker Dayon Pratt might well have been in consideration for All-American Athletic Conference honors. In 10 games, Pratt produced 61 tackles, tied for the team lead with 7.5 tackles for loss and led ECU with 2.5 sacks. He departs as a four-year letterwinner who played in 37 career games.
NEEDS FOR 2018: There’s a lot of young talent at outside linebacker in the program and only one, Anderson, is scheduled to complete his eligibility when the 2017 season ends. Replacing Anderson would seem like the goal, but grabbing two wouldn’t hurt. One to follow for ECU will be Alan Tisdale, a 6-3, 205-pounder from Greensboro’s Page High School. Tisdale already has an offer from the Pirates and is expected to be one of the state’s top prospects in the Class of 2018.
INSIDE LINEBACKER C+
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The inside linebacker spots seemed to be the area on defense most in need of some new blood with four players at those positions poised to finish their ECU careers after the 2017 season. Signing three seemed like a reasonable place to start filling those voids. Falling short of that hurt the overall grade here, even though the one they did get should make an immediate impact. If Bivens winds up playing inside, we would adjust the grade to at least a B-minus.
WHO SIGNED: Cannon Gibbs will reunite in Greenville with old high school rival Gardner Minshew, who finished the season as Pirates’ starting quarterback. The pair faced off many times growing up in Brandon, MS, and remained in close contact during Gibbs’ recruitment from Jones Community College. The 6-2, 220-pounder led Jones with 68 tackles as a sophomore while also recording 11 tackles for loss and six sacks. Gibbs chose ECU over offers from Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana Tech.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Gibbs has already arrived on campus, which gives him a leg up on assuming the vacant “MIKE” or middle linebacker spot. He’ll provide instant mental and physical maturity at one of the key positions on defense. Plus, Gibbs is such a good athlete that he considered playing baseball at the college level.
MONTGOMERY ON GIBBS: “His distinguishing characteristic is that if you’re not paying attention he will hit you. He is exactly what we want from our linebackers because he can tackle in space.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: East Carolina made some overtures to 6-2, 235-pound Kalia Davis from Pensacola, FL, after he made a verbal commitment to Central Florida in June. Davis even made a September visit to Greenville. The trip, however, failed to sway Davis away from the Knights.
WHO’S BACK: Between scholarship players and walk-ons, eight inside linebackers on ECU’s roster experienced playing time in 2016 either on defense or special teams. Two of those returnees made starts and four appeared in 10 or more games overall.
Senior Jordan Williams led the Pirates with 77 tackles last season, even though he started only the final five games at the weakside position. Williams, a former walk on, has produced 158 tackles over the last two seasons and is the most experienced inside backer with 33 career games under his belt.
Another senior, Pat Green, started the first two games at the weakside position last year before losing the the job first to Terrell Richardson and then to Williams. Green contributed 14 tackles and played in 10 games overall.
Senior Ray Tillman made 26 tackles in 11 games and ended last season as the backup to Williams on the weak side, while junior Joe Carter (10 games), senior Anthony Gutierrez (6) and sophomore Tony Baird (4) also saw game action.
WHO’S GONE: Two of the top three tacklers from 2016 have departed in Terrell Richardson and Cam White. Richardson, a defensive back most of his career, started five games at the weakside linebacker position last year, one at the middle linebacker spot and another at defensive end. He wound up being one of the team’s most effective defenders with 63 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. White started at the middle linebacker spot for the first 11 games, finishing with 63 tackles and four tackles for loss.
NEEDS FOR 2018: This projects to be a huge priority for ECU since Green, Gutierrez, Tillman and Williams will be leaving after the 2017 campaign. The Pirates have already jumped in with offers to highly-ranked Rocky Shelton from Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Teradja Mitchell of Virginia Beach. ECU was also the first to offer another Florida product, James Millers from Seffner.
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates went looking for two or three physical athletes to groom as potential replacements for the two strong safeties who completed their eligibility at the end of 2016. They struck gold with two safeties who fit that description perfectly. ECU could have scored higher by landing one more safety.
WHO SIGNED: East Carolina ventured South to land a guy named “Tank” and another call “Tez.” Before their careers at ECU are over, maybe we can call them “TNT.”
Delvontae “Tez” Harris and Devondre “Tank” Robinson are known for hitting like linebackers, which Harris was in a hybrid sort of way at Newnan High in Georgia. Harris (6-0, 185) was a combination safety-linebacker as a senior when he made 60 tackles and forced six turnovers on the way to All-Region 3 7-A honors. Charleston Southern and Western Carolina were the only other programs to offer a scholarship to Harris, who may be the “sleeper” recruit in the 2017 class.
Robinson is a 6-foot, 190-pounder from Lake Marion High in Holly Hill, SC., who was rated by Scout.com as the top safety prospect in the Palmetto State. He racked up 107 tackles, including 100 solo, and made three interceptions as a senior when he drew scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and dozens of others. But he spurned those advances and became one of the final pieces to the ECU recruiting class by committing 48 hours before signing day.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Both Harris and Robinson split their talents between offense and defense in high school, so they’ll have a lot to learn about being full-time safeties at the college level. But because of their physical styles a lot of their lessons may occur on the job. Either or both could make a contribution on special teams next fall, or on defense as nickel backs.
MONTGOMERY ON HARRIS: “He is another physical safety we were able to recruit for a long time, about a year. That helped us seal the deal with him.”
MONTGOMERY ON ROBINSON: “He is widely considered the No. 1 safety in the state of South Carolina. His recruitment heated up even after he committed to us, especially in the last two days. We did a good job on the official weekend. Our staff loved him and his family and they returned the favor by signing with us … .”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: ECU appeared to have filled one of its needs at safety when Latheron Rodgers-Anderson from Columbia, SC, gave his verbal commitment last September. But the two parted ways in November when the Pirates declined to wait on “a low test score he planned to take in December,” Rodgers-Anderson told The State newspaper in Columbia. He wound up signing with Western Kentucky.
WHO’S BACK: Three returning players with starting experience and an intriguing wild card will make the safety positions interesting to watch during spring practice.
The veteran trio is led by senior Travon Simmons, a starter at free safety in 11 of 12 games last year. Simmons was one of the team’s more active defenders, ranking fifth in team tackles with 53 and had one of the team’s five interceptions.
Junior Devon Sutton was all over the place in 2016. Sutton made two starts at defensive end and two at strong safety, recording 40 tackles along the way in 10 overall games. Similar to Sutton, senior Bobby Fulp bounced back and forth between two positions, safety and cornerback. Two of Fulp’s six starts occurred at strong safety and the rest at corner during a productive campaign in which he accumulated 32 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one interception.
Seniors Xavier Smith (12 games), Austin Teague (12) and Trevian Hicks (12) are other returning veterans, while redshirt freshman Kenyon Taylor will be looking to make his mark this spring.
A wild card at safety could be sophomore Tim Irvin, the nephew of former University of Miami and Dallas Cowboys receiver great Michael Irvin. The younger Irvin was a big-time recruit back in 2015 out of Westminster Christian School in Miami, FL, and was verbally committed to Texas at one point before finally signing with Auburn. He was the Tigers primary nickel back as a true freshman when he played in 10 games and made 18 tackles. But Irvin announced in May he was transferring and by July said ECU was going to be his destination. After sitting out the 2016 season, Irvin should start to make an impact on the Pirates’ safety unit this spring.
WHO’S GONE: DaShaun Amos began the 2016 season as a starter at cornerback, but shifted to strong safety for four games before returning to corner for the final contest of the season against Temple. Amos racked up 51 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in 12 overall games.
DaShawn Benton made the starting lineup for games at free safety (one) and strong safety (4), but was mainly the top reserve as both spots.
NEED FOR 2018: Losing four seniors in Simmons, Smith, Teague and Hicks means the Pirates will have some work to do to land replacements in the 2018 class. Signing up three would be a sufficient number to shoot for, but two is more likely. Javon Terry from state 4-AA champion Wake Forest High is one safety prospect already on ECU’s recruiting board.
WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates looked dangerously thin at cornerback by the end of 2016 when two former-walk ons were holding down one of the starting spots. Three corners on the depth chart will also complete their eligibility after next season, so ECU needed numbers and some immediate help in that area. They got the help, but not the numbers.
WHO SIGNED: Marcus Holton (5-11, 175) comes to ECU via Georgia Military Academy where he made 52 tackles, broke up 15 passes and made three interceptions as a sophomore. He was a two-year starter for the Bulldogs and received scholarship offers from Marshall and Western Kentucky. Holton is from Tallahassee, FL, where he was a first-team All-State 5-A selection as a senior at state power Amos P. Godby High School.
HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Holton is big and strong enough to handle the larger wide receivers in coverage, yet has the speed to keep up with the more agile players. He’s also an excellent kick returner who could be an asset on special teams. Because Holton enrolled in January and will participate in spring practice, you can expect him to be on the field in some capacity next fall.
MONTGOMERY ON HOLTON: “He will give us some flexibility at the corner position to cover and tackle in space. He has been on our radar for over a year.”
BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Myles White, a cornerback for Greensboro Dudley’s state 4-A champions, was an early verbal commitment for ECU back in April. But as was the case with several of the Pirates early pledges, they were forced to part ways in December. White has yet to sign with another school.
WHO’S BACK: Seniors Bobby Fulp and Chris Love, junior Corey Seargent and sophomore Colby Gore all made starts in the revolving door at cornerback last season. Gore, with nine starts in 12 games, logged the most minutes there on the way to making 43 tackles, two tackles for loss and a team-high two interceptions. Seargent was next, making six starts in nine games while collecting 27 tackles.
Five of Fulp’s six starts a year ago were at corner, while Love started there once in 10 game appearances. Fulp was in on 32 tackles, had 2.5 tackles for loss an interception and Love collected nine hits.
Senior Travis Phillips (12 games, 26 tackles) and junior Marquel King (12 games) were other corners who saw action in the secondary or on special teams. Ready for his first chance at game action in 2017 will be redshirt freshman Keyshawn Canady, a big, athletically gifted player who has great potential at corner.
WHO’S GONE: The Pirates don’t lose anyone at cornerback who was on the depth chart when the 2016 ended.
NEEDS FOR 2018: Three players who are likely to figure into the cornerback picture in 2017 – Fulp, Love and Phillips – will be seniors. The Pirates should try to replace those immediately, and it would appear that’s the goal based on the number of offers already out to cornerbacks in the Class of 2018. At least three of those offers have been made to Florida corners – Eugene Bowman IV from Jacksonville, Marquis Williams from Tallahassee and Miguel Edwards of Deerfield Beach.
OVERALL DEFENSIVE GRADE B+
Give the coaching staff a lot of credit for this end of the recruiting class. They saw specific and immediate needs, and weren’t afraid to fill those with extremely talented junior college recruits. There will hopefully come a time in the near future that tapping so heavily into the junior college ranks won’t be necessary. But it’s was the right stop-gap measure for the present. Plus, they built a solid future with their high school signees at defensive end and safety.
OVERALL OFFENSE AND DEFENSE GRADE B+
Well, that was easy since both units received a B+ grade. But Scottie Montgomery can clearly call his first full recruiting class a tremendous success. He and the staff secured much needed immediate help on defense, snared the top quarterback in the state and improved the program’s overall depth and talent. A job well done.