East Carolina opens the 2017 season at home against James Madison on Sept. 2 at 6 p.m. The Dukes won the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last season and return quarterback Bryan Schor, who passed for 3,002 yards as a junior.
“We started thinking about them last year once our season ended and they were still playing,” said ECU defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson. “We have had the opportunity to watch them and understand the challenge, but we’re looking forward to it. We have thought about it quite a bit. We spent quite a bit of time in the spring, in the offseason and this summer making sure that we’re doing the things that we need to do when it gets to that time, at the same time making sure that we concentrate on us first, but we definitely have begun to do our homework to prepare for that game.”
Coast-to-coast coaching resume
Thompson’s experience includes coaching stints in the Mountain West Conference at San Jose State, in the Pac-12 at California and in the Southeastern Conference at Vanderbilt. The Pirates were 3-9 overall and 1-7 in league play in his first year through the American Athletic Conference in 2016.
“All of those leagues, one of the common things that they have is great coaches with great diversity, meaning every week you can see every offense known to football within that conference,” Thompson said. “Whether it be teams like Alabama or Georgia at the time when I was at Vanderbilt that would line up and run that ball right at you with pro style offenses or whether it would be teams that would spread you out like Oregon back in Chip Kelly’s day when they would throw the ball and run the ball and spread you from sideline to sideline. Having to deal in the Mountain West with Air Force, which ran option like a Navy,
“Every week, you’re pretty much going to see every element of football that you could possibly see. Even back in the two-back days, versus SC (Southern California) when they would shift and motion and move guys around and try to create matchups, more of a pro style situation. I think the American Conference is the same way. You’ve got so many different offenses. You’ve got so many variations of what you can see week to week.
“You’ve got to be prepared because these coaches are going to do a good job of attacking your weaknesses and trying to expose certain personnel issues. It’s a challenge but you wouldn’t want it any other way. You want to compete at the highest level against the best in the country to prove your wares. This conference gives you an opportunity to do that.”
Thompson grew up in the Houston area and played at Harding University in Searcy, AR.
“Central Arkansas was a big game,” Thompson said. “As a matter of fact, that’s where coach played that’s at South Florida (Charlie Strong). . . . That was our rival. We beat them one year for the conference championship. Then went up there the next year and lost a game for the conference championship, but that was our rival, Central Arkansas.”
Central Arkansas is also the alma mater of former ECU coach John Thompson.
Harding also matched up with Iowa Wesleyan, Thompson noted, which is the alma mater of West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. Washington State coach Mike Leach was offensive coordinator at Iowa Wesleyan when Holgorsen was playing. Harding was 13-1 last season, losing in the third round of the Division II playoffs.
Thompson was a linebacker in his playing days. He was all-conference as a senior and finished his career as the program’s all-time sacks leader.
ECU visits West Virginia on Sept. 9 at noon.
Pressuring opposing QB
Getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks is seen by Thompson as a step toward producing more sacks and turnovers than last year. ECU had just eight in each category.
The Pirates played a 3-4 base defense last season.
“That was one of our prerequisites for getting to a four-man front is being able to create opportunities as far as how many guys we get to the quarterback as well as making sure, personnel-wise, we’ve got better pass rushers on the field,” Thompson said. “A lot of times in a 3-4 situation a lot of the pass rush depended on those outside linebackers. You’ve got to have two that are special in order to be able to do that. Those other guys are not on the edge. They’re more in the middle so it’s hard to get pressure from those guys.
“When you get to a four-man front, you kind of create opportunities for all four of those guys to be able to pressure the pocket at one point or another. We came up with the philosophy of fighting our butts off on first and second down in order to put ourselves in good third-down situations so we can get the quarterback, getting them in a way where we feel like we can generate pressure with a four-man rush versus putting the secondary in harm’s way too many times.
“Everything that we did when we went back and looked at what we were doing and were talking about what we were going to do this year, we had those things in mind. We’ve done some things last spring, starting work on that. We’ll get back to work on that here in camp. That is a focus of ours, a major goal. I think we’re heading in the right direction to get those things answered.”
The defensive front appears to have better depth and talent.
“We’ve added five defensive lineman that were not on the team last year, guys who are able to go get the passer,” Thompson said. “If you count guys who were redshirted last year and are now eligible to play, that number goes up to eight. You’re talking about eight bodies that are coming in with physical skill that we feel like will allow us to be able to get the quarterback. I’m talking about length, speed.
“Three of the guys we added are 6-4 and above, whether that be defensive end or defensive tackle, a couple of 6-5 guys. That’s an enhancement of some personnel that we did not have on campus. We felt like some of our younger guys that we redshirted last year — they came with a natural ability to be able to get off the ball and go get the quarterback but may have struggled against the run because of their size. Because of a year spent in the program with Coach [Jeff] Connors (assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning), now we feel like we can put them on the field in any situation.”
Thompson said Minnesota graduate transfer Gaelin Elmore (6-6, 275), a defensive end, has arrived on campus.
Keys for defense
The ECU defensive coordinator talked about keys for his unit.
“The big thing is . . . we have got to affect the quarterback in order to be able to affect people’s passing game,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to get a rush. We will do things to be able to create that. We’ve got to be able to rush with not only pressuring the quarterback with blitzes. We’ve got to be able to line up and go get them with four people and play a little coverage. That’s going to be one of our things.
“We’ve got to have a physical mindset of knocking people back up front and tackling. We go back and look at some of our issues, if we tackle better as a defense, which we will, we feel like we could put ourselves in a position to be able to stop people by tackling and getting people on the ground. That will be one of our focuses. It was in the spring. It will be from the beginning. We will practice tackling even when we don’t have full pads on — how you approach, not overrunning the ball, great pursuit angles.
“Being able to tackle, affect the quarterback and then again, some of that off the field stuff, guys being able to understand what their jobs are, taking pride as coaches, as teachers, and making sure that we come up with creative ways to make sure our guys know exactly what to do so that we can hold each other accountable. Then playing extremely hard. I think what we are armed with this year that we were not armed with last year is experience, whether it be coaches, whether it be players. Understanding the league will be a powerful asset for us, one thing that we did not have last year. I think we should see our performance improve because of those reasons.”
Preventing big plays will be a priority.
“Specific football goals is reduce the amount of explosive plays,” Thompson said. “Minimize missed tackles and affect the quarterback. Those are things we’re looking to do and we’re talking about that part of it before we actually talk about specific numbers because we feel like if we do those things and concentrate on those, those are things we can work on. The tangible numbers, as far as points per game, … which is the most important stat on defense, and takeaways, those things will happen.”
The Pirates open AAC play at home on Sept. 30 against preseason league favorite South Florida.
ECU will have an open date on Sept. 23 after hosting Virginia Tech on Sept. 16 at 3:30 p.m.
The Bulls feature quarterback Quinton Flowers, who is getting mention as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“He is a great player,” Thompson said. “We experienced that last year up at their place. We feel like that because of the quality of opponents we’ll play before that game that our work ethic, our mindset and how we prepare and practice will be formulated in the weeks before that, which will help us prepare for when they come to visit here in Greenville.
“That’s another reason why we’re focusing on us first and then that first game in JMU and going from there. Playing JMU, West Virginia and Virginia Tech, those are great opponents, too. We feel like preparation for those opponents will help us in our preparation for when it’s time to get into the conference.”
As reported in Part I on Friday with Thompson, a fishing trip with his sons, Jaxson and Jacob, was a highlight before his focus turned to football prior to preseason camp.
“We caught a little sheepsheads, some speckled trout,” Thompson said. “I wouldn’t profess to be a great fisherman but I got a chance to wrestle with a big jackfish. I learned some of that while I was out there. We were able to catch some and they were able to have a lot of fun. It’s always good — like football, we love the game, we love practicing and what not. It’s good to win. To be able to bring a few of them in the boat, we’ll take that. . . . We were out in the gulf. We took a boat out in the gulf, not too far, maybe 30 minutes out, docked out by some deep jetties and kind of fished out there.”
Friday (Part One): Interview with ECU Defensive Coordinator Kenwick Thompson
Saturday (Part Two): Interview with ECU Defensive Coordinator Kenwick Thompson