An injury halted David Blackwell’s playing career at East Carolina and put him on an early track to be a coach. His enthusiasm in a practice drill subsequently moved him from offense to defense as a volunteer assistant for the Pirates.
His development as a defensive coordinator has brought him back to his alma mater to address the needs of a program that allowed 45.0 points per game during a 3-9 season in 2017.
The Pirates ranked 129th among 129 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense during a year that produced a 2-6 record in the American Athletic Conference.
Blackwell became the third defensive coordinator in the Scottie Montgomery coaching era, which spans a pair of 3-9 seasons, as he took the reins of the defense last month.
The Pirates allowed opponents 541.7 yards per game in Montgomery’s second season in 2017, also 129th and last in the FBS.
There is literally nowhere to go but up for the ECU defense.
Blackwell experienced some of the best in Pirate football in his first stint with the program after choosing ECU as a high school recruit several decades ago when he moved from Greenville, SC, to Greenville, NC.
He talked about the circumstances that brought him from one Greenville to another while on the recruiting trail in his home state this week and discussed the developmental factors that have him poised to guide the much-needed improvement of a downtrodden Pirates defensive unit.
‘Shank’ made first contact
Blackwell had some impressive opportunities to play on the next level. Former ECU offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler, who served on the staffs of Steve Logan and Skip Holtz at ECU, was the first to make contact with Blackwell on behalf of the Pirates.
“I was in Coach (Bill) Lewis’ first recruiting class at East Carolina,” Blackwell said. “I had been recruited by N.C. State and Georgia Tech. I visited both of those places and also visited the University of South Carolina. East Carolina, at that time, Steve Shankweiler was recruiting me. Coach Shank was my position coach. It was kind of late in the process. He came up to me at an all-star game in South Carolina, the North-South All-Star Game, on the field after the game and got my phone number. When I came up on my official visit, Coach Lewis really sold me on his vision of the program and things like that.
“It came down really to Georgia Tech and East Carolina. I chose East Carolina. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, which is a decent-size city. I didn’t like the big city. Atlanta was just so big. At that time, being recruited, I just couldn’t see myself in school where you’re in a major city. It was weird for me. I really had my heart set on Clemson. I was going to go to Clemson. They recruited me all the way up until the end and never really officially offered me, but it ended up working out for me. . . . Tom Harper was actually the coach who was recruiting me for Clemson. He kept telling me to be patient. They were going to offer me. We kind of rode it out and rode it out.
“Then really, it got down to the end and I had kind of held some people off that had offered me early and as they started filling up on scholarships, some of those offers started disappearing. My dad was like, ‘Look, you’re going to have to make a decision. This is what you have, legitimately.’ We visited Georgia Tech. My dad made me visit The Citadel. He thought The Citadel would be a great choice. He took the football part out of it. Of course, I wanted to play major college football. We visited Georgia Tech, The Citadel and East Carolina. We had made a visit to N.C. State earlier in the process. At the end, I kind of chose between Georgia Tech and East Carolina.”
Blackwell had experienced stingers before but never recovered sufficiently from one in preseason camp in 1991 to ever play again. He had seen action against Louisiana Tech, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Memphis State (now Memphis) and Northern Illinois as a redshirt freshman in 1990.
“It happened during fall camp,” Blackwell said. “We were in practice before the season, obviously, but it was the Peach Bowl season (1991). It was kind of in the middle of an inside drill. I was blocking down on one of the linebackers and got tripped from behind. I got my head caught at an awkward angle and got hit funny. I got a stinger and it kind of went numb, which for me was never really a big deal. I got those all the time. . . . But the feeling didn’t come back in my arm and shoulder. So after practice I went in to the trainers and they were a little more concerned about it than they usually were because I didn’t have good strength in my grip and all that. After some testing, they realized that I had torn some ligaments in my neck and done some pretty good damage to it. It ended up being a career-ending injury.”
Blackwell still gets an occasional twinge from his last day in pads.
“Every now and then, if I turn my head too fast one way or the other, I’ll get a little burner or stinger,” said ECU’s new defensive coordinator. “It actually has gotten better over the last few years. When I was younger, early in my coaching career, I used to have a lot of problems with it — numbness, tingling, a lot of pain, things like that with my neck. As I’ve gotten a little older, I think it’s actually gotten a little better through time. It’s not as bad as it used to be. It’s like anything else in this world where you play football as long as any of us have. You get to my age, you’re 46 years old, you feel a lot of those hits from the old days. I get up in the morning, it takes me about 10 minutes to get moving.”
Peach Bowl season started transition
ECU went 11-1 for the 1991 season with a 37-34 win over N.C. State in the Peach Bowl. The only loss came at Illinois, 38-31, in the season opener. The Pirates, ranked No. 9 nationally, had the best record in the nation among independents that year, including Florida State (11-2), Penn State (11-2) and Notre Dame (10-3).
Blackwell was close to the season-long excitement.
“I was a cheerleader on the sidelines,” Blackwell said of his role in 1991. “I got hurt during fall camp. For about a month there, we thought maybe I was going to be able to come back and play. When I got hurt, I was in the two deep. I was competing. I had played six games as a freshman the year before. I was in the two deep the year before but was really in position to play a lot that season. Then I had the injury so by the time they finally ruled me out for the year, and then for my career, it was midseason when they finally told me I couldn’t play any more.
“I was on the sidelines during the home games and around the team a good bit, but not as much a part of it. That spring, I started working with Coach (Jeff) Connors in the weight room. I started transitioning then, what do I want to do with myself? … Coach took me in the weight room and kind of kept me out of trouble. He kept me from screwing around and made sure I kept my grades up, things like that. He took me under his wing a little bit. Just like any of us, you go in, you dream about playing in the NFL. You dream about all this and all of a sudden, it’s gone. My grades slipped and I was probably sliding down a path that I didn’t need to go down. Coach Connors made me come work for him in the weight room and I kind of got a little bit of passion back about what do I want to do with my life.
“After Coach Lewis had left and went to Georgia Tech, I went and visited with Coach Logan about being a student assistant and learning how to be a coach. … He was very good to me and allowed me to do that. He gave me the opportunity as a young coach to grow and as time went there I really transitioned into a role. By the time I left there, I was coaching my own position. He gave me an awful lot of responsibility. . . . In ’95, I guess I was still listed as a volunteer assistant or student assistant at that time, but I actually coached the outside linebackers. I had my own position meetings, my own room, the whole thing. I left after the Liberty Bowl that year (19-13 win over Stanford) and went with Todd Berry to Illinois State. . . . He is now head of the American Football Coaches Association.”
Development of coaching philosophy
Blackwell began to evolve as a coach while he was still a student at ECU. He earned his degree in exercise science from ECU in 1997.
“It really started when I was at East Carolina,” Blackwell said of his coaching philosophy. “I was working as a student coach, helping Coach Jags (Jeff Jagodzinski) with the offensive line. We hired Larry Coyer as our defensive coordinator. We were in spring ball and we were out at practice. We were doing a drill with the O-line and the D-line and Coach Coyer was watching the drill. I was right in the middle of the drill as a young coach does, getting in the middle of everything, coaching hard and getting excited about it. The next day Coach Logan calls me in his office and told me he’s moving me to defense. I said, ‘Well, did I do something wrong?’ He said, ‘No, Coach Coyer wants you on defense and I’m moving you to defense.’ I went and met with Coach Coyer. He said, ‘Yeah, I’d like for you to work with us on defense.’
“He was only there one season but he made a huge impact on me as a coach. I would sit up there at night, just the two of us, after all the other coaches had left and watch film with him. He would teach me. He was invaluable to me and has been, even to this day. When he was defensive coordinator of the Broncos (2003-06) and the Colts (2009-11), he was always a good sounding board for me to ask questions and call.
“At Jacksonville State the last four years, I’ve flown him in for a week during spring ball every year and for a week during fall camp every year just to evaluate our defense and our coaches and kind of give me his thoughts from an experience standpoint. He had a huge impact on me early on and still does to this day. He’s somebody that I talk to at least once a week if not more than once a week even now.”
Foundation for success
Blackwell has spent the last four years as defensive coordinator at Jacksonville State in Jacksonville, AL, developing a Gamecocks unit that was among the FCS elite.
“After Illinois State, I went to the University of Pittsburgh and I worked with Paul Rhoads (defensive coordinator) at Pitt,” Blackwell said. “Walt Harris was our head coach. For three years, we were one of the top defenses in the country. Being around great defenses, really throughout my career, really helped mold me. You take a little bit from everybody you work for. I went from there to Clemson University. At Clemson, the last four years I was there, our defense was top 15 or top 10 in the country in four different categories every year. I worked for Vic Koenning there, defensive coordinator. Vic always did a great job. You take things from those guys.
“I left Clemson and went to South Florida and had my first chance as a coordinator with Jim Leavitt. We had a really good defense. Coach Leavitt was a guy who was really sharp. We had co-coordinators. Our other coordinator, Joe Tresey, was a really, really sharp guy. We worked together. Under Jim, who was a defensive head coach, who really knew a lot of football and was another guy who had a great impact on me. Two years at Fordham with Joe Moorhead and running the defense there was a great experience for me because we took over a team that was 1-10 and had one of the worst defenses in the country. We went 6-5 the first year. The second year we went 12-2. The first year we were there we improved statistically at least 21 spots in every category defensively. In several categories, we improved 60 to 70 spots. . . . The next year, we were one of the top defenses in the country. … I learned how to do it with guys who weren’t maybe quite as talented as what I was used to having. It made me have to change a little bit philosophically.
“Then going to Jacksonville State where we had good talent and we had players. We were able to do some things a little differently. Through the four years there, we were really able to grow the defense from year one to year four. This past year, statistically, it was probably the best defense we ever had while I was there. Two years ago, we played in the [FCS] national championship game. Traditionally, we were among the best in the nation on defense and were very fortunate. Again, coaches get a lot of credit when you do well like that, you get a lot of blame when you don’t do well, but it comes down to players. Players make plays and I’ve been a really smart coach when we had really good defensive players.
“We’ve got to be sure that we give our guys a chance to play. The biggest thing from a philosophy standpoint to me is we’ve got to get lined up, you’ve got to understand angles and we’ve got to run to the football. If we do those things, we will improve. That’s the thing. We’ve got to tackle. We’ve got to understand pursuit angles. Know where our leverage and know where our help is. It all stems from relentless pursuit of the football mindset. That’s really, philosophically, me in a nutshell. That’s all we talked about at Jacksonville State — running to the football, playing hard, playing physical, knowing where to send the football and then eliminating explosive plays. Making people earn their way down the field. We worked really hard on third down defense and really hard in the red zone. Those are areas, when I was at Fordham, we weren’t quite as good as some people talent-wise. We were able to win games because we were really good in the red zone and we could get off the field on third down.
“That was the thing we tried to do there to give ourselves a chance. We worked hard on red zone defense. We believed in it. Our players believed in it. We forced a lot of field goals and we got off the field on third down. We were top 10 in the nation in third down defense. We led the nation in takeaways. We were 11th in the nation in red zone defense and we won 12 games. There’s a blueprint.
“I listened to Chip Kelly one time talk at Oregon about what he expected out of his defense. It was those things. ‘We’ve got to take the ball away as much as we can. We’ve got to be opportunistic. We’ve got to get off the field when we have long-yardage opportunities on third downs and we’ve got to get good in the red zone.’
“It’s not about how many yards you give up. It’s about winning the game and managing the game. All the stats and all that stuff is nice but, like Coach (Scottie) Montgomery (ECU head coach) asked me what your No. 1 goal is defensively and I said, ‘That’s to hold them to one point less than you score.’ That’s the ultimate goal. We’ve got to try to do that and grow from there.”
Mission at ECU
From worst to first is Blackwell’s goal for the Pirates
“The first thing is the expectation level, from me, No. 1, and from Coach Montgomery and from everyone in the program is to be among the best in the country at what we do,” Blackwell said. “That’s not going to happen overnight, but we can and will improve. The objective again — all the stats are nice and that stuff will come — but the objective is to do what it takes to win football games. We’ve got to manage the game better defensively. We’ve got to eliminate explosive plays and we’ve got to give ourselves a chance to win football games. Part of that is we’ve got to stay in games early and not get behind so fast and things like that.
“Objectively and goal-wise, we’re going to aspire to be the best in the country. That’s what the ultimate goal is — to be the best in the nation. That’s the goal I’ve set everywhere I’ve been. It may not happen the first year. It didn’t happen the first year at Fordham but the second year we were among the best in the country and led the nation in one category. It’s not unrealistic for us to set goals that are high. This program is a proud program and we can recruit good players and we have high expectations. I’m going to set high expectations. I’m not going to lower my expectations based on the past. We may not reach all of our expectations the first year or at once, but we will improve and that’s the things that we’ve got to do is just keep improving.”
Getting to know personnel
There is a lot to bring together as Blackwell builds the defense for the Pirates. He will be on a fast learning curve to evaluate personnel and their abilities.
“I wish I had more familiarity,” Blackwell said. “I’ve tried really hard not to watch a lot of last year’s film. … I’ve done that everywhere I’ve been as a new coach going in because I don’t want to judge kids off the past. I want it to be a fresh start for them as much as possible. Plus, you don’t know what they’re being coached. If you watch film, sometimes you can mistake confusion for lack of effort. That’s not always fair to the player. What I like to do is make a fresh start as much as possible. The guys were gone when I got hired. They were on Christmas break. We’ve been recruiting virtually every week so I haven’t been able to get around the players as much as I want to. I’m really excited about winter workouts coming up in a few weeks and, obviously, spring ball starting early, which I think is good for us because it gives us an opportunity to really evaluate our players. Take our time and know what we have to work with. We’ll go from there.”
Objectives in spring ball
Blackwell plans a basic approach in spring practice, which starts on Feb. 19 and culminates on March 24.
“I think the first one is be sure we’ve got the players lined up in the right position, put them in the best position to be successful,” Blackwell said. “That’s always a big challenge, whether you’re an offensive coach, defensive coach, whatever it is, special teams — is putting the players in the right positions to be the most successful (they) can be, where you can maximize their abilities. I do not believe in asking players to do something they physically can not do. You can not put a square peg in a round hole.
“We have to learn our personnel, No. 1. And, No. 2, we’ve got to have a hang-your-hat defense. By that, I mean we have to have a base. We’ve got to have something we believe in so we’ve got to get good at playing football. Then we’ll grow as fast as we can or as much as we need to. If we come out of spring ball with one front and three or four coverages, that’s fine. I want to get good at angles, pursuit angles, running to the football, playing with eyes, playing with passion and playing with a hard edge. Those are things it doesn’t take schemes to do. We can scheme all we want but the reality is if we don’t understand leverage and we don’t run to the football and we don’t tackle … If we don’t play with good discipline and good vision, we’re not going to be any good with anything. We’re going to learn to play defense. That’s the No. 1 objective to become fundamentally a better defense.”
A lot was made of ECU’s transition from a 3-front to a 4-2-5 base defense in 2017. Blackwell will determine what talent will allow the Pirates to do.
“You have to have flexibility within your scheme to be what your players allow you to be,” Blackwell said. “That said, I have traditionally been a base of a 4-2-5 with the ability to move in and out of a 3-man front. At times last year, we played in a 2-man front. That’s just depending on looks, spread offenses and things like that. We did some things that were a little unusual, a little exotic at times, but you’re dealing with players that are four years into a scheme that gives you the flexibility to do a lot more with them over time.
“The first year going in we didn’t do as much at Jacksonville State as we did, obviously, this past year. We’ll see as we progress through the spring how far we can go and how fast we can go. Again, the main objective is to become fundamentally sound playing the game — to tackle, tackle in space, to know where to send the football. That’s been a big issue in the past is guys not knowing where to fit the run or how to fit the run. Those are things to me that we’ve got to walk before we can run.”
Work in progress
Daric Riley, who will coach safeties, and Rodrique Wright, who will work with defensive linemen, are also new to the Pirates staff, joining Brandon Lynch, who will be directing the cornerbacks on the defensive side. Blackwell will be coaching linebackers.
“It’s always the case when you’re new coming in, it’s going to be a work in progress through the spring and summer,” Blackwell said. “It’s not how much we put in in the spring. It’s just getting everybody on the same page. The coaches have been awesome. I have a lot of respect for Coach Lynch. No. 1, he does a tremendous job teaching. I’ve been really impressed with him. Coach Wright, I have history with because we’ve seen each other on film so much. He coached at Sam Houston, a team we played twice in the playoffs when I was at Jacksonville State. They’re always an outstanding team. He coached one of the best players in the country in P.J. Hall. I’ve seen how his players play first hand and seen them on film several times and had a familiarity with him. I had a very strong familiarity, obviously, with Daric. Daric and I worked together at Clemson. He was at Jacksonville State the year before I got there. He was at UAB my first year at Jacksonville State. He’s the guy I’ve known for a long, long time. He worked with my brother in Division II ball up in Pikeville, KY, so I’ve known Daric for a long time. I know exactly what we’re getting there, the type of person and type of coach he is.
“Those guys, it’s really important for us as a coaching staff to be on the same page and then for us to have one voice moving forward. That’s a critical thing. When we talk to our defensive players that they’re hearing the same thing from every coach. It starts with Coach Montgomery, No. 1, as the head coach, and then me, obviously, as the coordinator that you have one voice coming out of the room and we’re all speaking the same language. I think that’s the important part. You always have different personalities and different coaching styles. One of the things I’ve learned through the years is you’ve got to be you. I’m a fiery, get-after-you kind of coach. Some guys are a little more laid back. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think when guys make mistakes in coaching is when they try to emulate someone else or be someone they are not.
“I strive really hard to be me every day. That was one of the best things I learned from John Grass at Jacksonville State, our head coach there. Coach Grass was the best I’ve ever been around at being him. You knew what you were getting every day. He’s the same guy win or lose, the same guy in the office in how he lived his life. That was something I greatly respected.”
Perspective on AAC
The AAC is an underrated league. Central Florida was 13-0, the only unbeaten team in the FBS in 2017 with a bowl win over Auburn, the only team to beat Alabama, the playoff champion.
“There’s no question,” Blackwell said. “When I was in the Big East at USF and even before that, at Pitt, the Big East always got a bad rap. When I was at Pitt in the Big East, Miami contended for the national championship every year. Virginia Tech was, we were a Top 20 program or Top 15 program. West Virginia was.
“The league for whatever reason has struggled to get national respect. Rebranding it as the AAC, you kept a lot of the teams in the league — Connecticut, Cincinnati were in the league. South Florida was in the Big East. Houston has been a great addition, obviously. What you find is a team like Memphis has been able to elevate their program because of the name.
“I go back to when I played here. We were an independent. Virginia Tech was an independent. Then the Big East formed and Virginia Tech got into the Big East to start with and we were left out of it. We were an independent. Watching how that Virginia Tech program accelerated itself, I think that’s something that our program is just starting to realize the benefits of recruiting to the AAC. We’ve played Cincinnati for years. We played Memphis for years. But these aren’t the same Memphis teams and Cincinnati teams from the old time. They’ve been recruiting to the Big East Conference for a long time. We have not and there is a big difference in recruiting to Conference USA and recruiting to the AAC and at that time, recruiting to the Big East. It takes a little while because you’re able to recruit a different caliber player when you’re in those leagues.
“I was talking to a high school coach [on Wednesday] about that. It hurt this program when they formed the BCS (Bowl Championship Series). From a name-recognition standpoint, you’re immediately relegated as second class citizens. I think the AAC has changed that. I hate the term mid-majors. I hate it. They lump everyone who’s not in a Power Five conference into that mid-major category. There’s still a big difference among the conferences. To compare the AAC to the Sun Belt or Conference USA is just wrong. There is a huge difference. I think it’s proven out in the bowl games. I think it’s proven out in the nonconference records.
“When you look at our conference and what our conference has been able to accomplish the last several years, there’s no question. . . . When I was at South Florida, we went up to Tallahassee and beat the brakes off of Florida State. We beat Clemson in a bowl game. A few years ago, Central Florida goes to the Liberty Bowl and beats Georgia like they stole something. This isn’t an unusual thing that’s happening. This has been going on for awhile. The teams in our league have traditionally been a thorn in the side of the so-called Power Five. That will continue.
“Look at East Carolina. A few years ago, we were beating Virginia Tech, beating North Carolina, beating N.C. State on a regular basis. We’ve got to worry about us and understand the fact that we do play in a very difficult league. Our schedule is not an easy schedule when you have two ACC schools nonconference and then play in our league. That’s a challenging schedule and it’s a great schedule. You go back a few years ago when East Carolina had beaten Virginia Tech, and I think North Carolina was undefeated. Then we got into league play and slipped up and lost a couple of games. That’s indicative of the teams that you’re playing and the quality of the opponents.”
‘I’m a Pirate’
Blackwell’s self concept should be reassuring for a fan base looking for a return to the exhilaration of the program’s glory days.
“I’m a Pirate,” Blackwell said. “I’m excited to be here. It’s a great challenge I know. It’s also a great opportunity. It’s a program I take a lot of pride in. . . . I’m very appreciative of Coach Montgomery for the opportunity and for the faith he’s shown in me. Hopefully, I can repay that to Coach Montgomery and to our fans with how our defense plays.
” . . . As we continue to recruit better and better, you get into year three and you’re building a program, I think the best is coming. We’re excited about the future.”
Criticism of the program is something Blackwell understands.
“As I told some of the players in the first meeting I had with them and I’ve told the coaches this — ‘do not ever apologize for having a passionate fan base,'” Blackwell said. “That is something in coaching that is a blessing. You take the bad with the good. You would rather people care. You would rather them complain when you’re not as successful because it means that they do care.
“I have been here when you could not pull into the parking lot after beating South Carolina in Columbia. There were so many people meeting us when we come back that you can’t get the buses into the parking lot. I’ve flown into that airport after beating a nationally-ranked Syracuse team on the road where there’s 10,000 people waiting on us at the airport when we get back.
“This program, in my opinion, has an opportunity to do something really special. This is a program that can be something big. I really believe that. We have a fan base. We’re now in a conference that we can really recruit at a high level to. I think this program has unlimited potential and I think this university does. It’s amazing to me the difference in the university now from when I was here before. The growth of the university itself, there’s just so many exciting things happening in Greenville and the university and all that. Hopefully, we can get this football program back, and not necessarily back but playing at an unprecedented level, doing some things that have never been done.
“That would be something that I think is always the goal is to excel past the past. I think we’ve got to embrace the past and love our tradition and set high standards for the future.”
“I was here when we did it,” Blackwell said. “All that shows you is that it can be done. When it can be done, it can be done again. There’s no reason why we can’t best it. Central Florida just went undefeated. There’s no reason why in the future, we can’t.”
The Pirates possibly were a controversial call away from an unbeaten season in 1991.
Blackwell recalled the situation at Illinois in 1991 as will many long-time ECU supporters.
“The first celebration penalty in the history of college football on an onside kick,” Blackwell said. “It was nauseating. The Big Ten officials did not want to give Jeff Blake (ECU quarterback) the ball again.”
Blake got the ball a final time in the Peach Bowl, hitting Luke Fisher for the winning touchdown, to set the standard for program success that the Pirates’ new defensive coordinator is seeking to surpass.