CAROLINA & CONFERENCE USA
View from the East
Friday, August 24, 2012
By Al Myatt
Defensive improvement still vital
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Improving the defense
was the program mantra after the 2010 football season at East
Carolina. The Pirates purely struggled after losing the likes of
defensive linemen C.J. Wilson and Linval Joseph from the teams that
won Conference USA championships under Coach Skip Holtz in 2008 and
Wilson and Joseph, of
course, have progressed in their careers to play on Super Bowl champions
with the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants since leaving ECU.
Holtz got out of town at
the same time as a number of seasoned veterans on the defensive unit.
Those that were left were seemingly wiped out by injuries during Ruffin
McNeill's first season in charge of the program.
The Pirates did an
incredible job to get to
the Military Bowl that season
considering the defense could lay claim to being the worst in the
nation. The NCAA statistics showed in fact that ECU was 120th and last
among all the teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision that year in total
defense, allowing 478.8 yards per game. That's a little more than a
quarter of a mile per game.
ECU retooled that
offseason, switching from a four front to a 3-4 and hitting the junior
colleges for immediate help from a personnel standpoint.
The Pirates rose
statistically to 56th in total defense last season, allowing 376.3 yards
With the quarterback
situation remaining an unknown going into the weekend before game week
for Appalachian State, ECU could use another quantum leap in 2012 by the
Offense sells tickets and
defense wins championships as the saying goes.
Despite the pending
identity of a starter at quarterback, the Pirates are apparently selling
tickets, but the acquisition of championships may well depend on the
flip side of the ball.
There was only one way for
the Pirates to go last year and that was up in terms of defensive
With the uncertainty that
inexperience at quarterback can generate, ECU needs to show considerable
improvement on defense again.
The good news is that
expectation is resonating within the program.
"Every day we step on the
field, we're getting better and better," said junior outside linebacker
Justin Dixon. "We're going to be a strong unit. We're definitely going
to be a fast unit. Being assignment sound alone is going to take us
Dixon amazed strength
coach Jeff Connors and his Pirate teammates with a 700-pound squat
during summer workouts. Dixon bench presses 480.
"We've got to transfer the
work in the summer time to the field," said the Smithfield-Selma
product. "I put a lot of work in during the summertime. We all have put
a lot of work in during the summertime. Whatever motivates us to
transfer it to the field, that's what we've got to do."
Dixon was among a number
of defensive players to be sidelined with injuries during the unit's
dismal showing in 2010. Last year, the injury bug hit the ECU offense.
"Staying healthy is big,"
Dixon said. "That's my main goal this year. I hope that's everybody's
main goal. We need everybody to be successful."
Inside linebacker Jeremy
Grove and defensive end Matt Milner have already had bouts with ailments
in the preseason but the prognosis is for both to be big contributors.
Grove was in on a team-high 122 tackles last season as a freshman. Miner
has 11 tackles for loss in his career.
"Teamwise, definitely go
to the championship game (Conference USA) and go to a bowl game, have a
winning record," Grove said of goals. "Defensive-wise, be top 25 in
overall defense. ... The key game is App. That's all we're thinking
about right now. Not making it to a bowl game last year made us real
hungry in the offseason. We've been getting after it and we're excited
to get a new season started."
Grove has rehabilitated
from offseason shoulder surgery.
"Team-wise, we're as
strong as we've ever been," he said. "We're as fast as we've ever been.
... We were hungry to get after it last year but we can take it even a
step farther this year. We want to be a top 25 defense. We've got a lot
of guys coming back and we think we can get that done. Last year, we
traveled with two inside linebackers. This year, we're three deep and
any of them can come in and get the job done."
Milner is a decorated
student in addition to his talents on the gridiron. He studies the game
and his opponents like a final exam.
"I don't see why we
couldn't cut the defensive stats in half again," Milner said. "Getting
to the top 25 would be really great. It's important to have a great
defense to be in contention for the conference championship. The 3-4
fits our personnel very well. We have great team speed. It allows us to
swarm to the ball."
Milner said the Pirates
have been fine-tuning the scheme that was installed last season.
"The coaches are adding in
stuff that's going to be good for us," Milner said. "We've increased our
team speed and team strength with Coach Connors. We've got such great
depth at all positions. That will definitely help us. There's going to
be no drop off, whoever steps on the field."
ECU turnovers were
inordinately high during a 5-7 season in 2011. Getting that negative
aspect under control is crucial.
"We're one team," Milner
said. "It's important you're behind your teammates no matter what,
through ups and downs. We also talk about when you're put in those
situations after a turnover. You have to be ready to bounce back."
More takeaways by the
defense would obviously create more opportunities for the offense as it
develops under new leadership.
"Our defensive backs
definitely have big play capabilities," Milner said. "Coach (Brian)
Mitchell (defensive coordinator) has been very good about giving them
the right instructions — being in the right place, not letting them get
the deep ball and being able to pick it off. ... We have some great
athletes back there. ... They can help us. When everybody is covered, we
can get in there, get some sacks and get some strips."
Mitchell quietly endured
the criticism that came when the Pirates yielded 44 points per game in
2010. That figure was reduced to 32.2 points a contest last season.
"We were able to put a
foundation in," Mitchell said of the revitalization of the defense.
"Coach Ruff uses this word quite a bit. We were methodical in how we put
it in. ... We wanted to play 11-man football. We don't want guys who are
hesitant. We want guys who play as fast as they possibly can."
Mitchell sounds like a
corporate executive when it comes to maintaining progress on defense.
"We're talking sustainable
growth," he said. "We've got to amp up the effort. ... We've got to be
relentless when we go after the ball. We've definitely improved on
Mitchell also coaches the
secondary where only one starter returns, but junior college transfers
and lettermen abound.
"Position mastery is
something that I keep preaching to my kids," Mitchell said. "Within that
position mastery is exactness. Do exactly what your coaches are teaching
you to do but also take it upon yourself to go in there and study a
little more film. Get in your position room and learn what the other
positions are doing within this defense. We'll start to flourish and
grow within this defense because if that free safety knows what that
buck backer is doing, you'll know how your fit will complement this
Mitchell knows the
apparent improvements in terms of talent, depth, scheme and execution
are only relevant in terms of the bigger picture.
"It's going to be
predicated on wins and losses and how we end up this season," he said.
"I do know this. Our kids have improved from the weight room. They're
stronger. They're faster. They're committed. They're accountable each
and every day. If I were to grade those things, those intangibles that
you look for that help make a good football team, I'd say right now
they're probably a nine out of 10."
App accomplishment up
Five years ago,
Appalachian State opened the 2007 season with a stunning 34-32 upset at
This week, an unidentified
former Wolverine player reportedly said many of his teammates had smoked
marijuana the night and morning before the game.
If true, the revelation
both explains Michigan's poor performance and diminishes the
accomplishment of the Mountaineers.
Michigan athletic director
David Brandon indicated that he was doubtful of the story's veracity.
"It's an unattributed
source and, believe me, if I worried about all of the inaccurate
information that flew around the Internet from bloggers from
unattributed sources, I wouldn't have time to do my job," Brandon said
in a radio interview with WWJ. "So, I don't know anything about it other
than it sounds pretty ridiculous to me."
Wiley knows Mountaineer
While John Wiley, ECU
associate head coach, was on staff in Boone, Appalachian State seemingly
received as much notoriety for the win in Ann Arbor as the three
national titles the Mountaineers captured in the Football Championship
Subdivision. Wiley, who also works with Pirate linebackers, knows the
mindset ASU will have for their second trip to Greenville in four years.
"Three things they've
always sold the kids on when playing a 1-A (FBS) school," Wiley said.
"One is that they've always prepared to win. They've never prepared just
to make a good showing. Two, what they sell the kids in these instances
is that these guys didn't think you were good enough to play here — to
create that chip on the shoulder mentality.
"The big thing, their
calling card, is 'We are more physical and mentally tougher than these
guys. If you'll be close to them in the fourth (quarter), you'll beat 'em.
You're a tougher outfit.' That's the thing that Coach (Jerry Moore)
sells throughout his program. He develops mentally-tough teams."
ASU is looking for
a 29-24 loss at ECU in the 2009
Wiley said the Pirates are
like the Mountaineers in many ways.
"That's what we're about,
too," said Wiley, who came to ECU with Coach McNeill. "What I've
discovered here is that those factors have been a big part of the
tradition here, too. ... Coach Connors started it in the weight room and
we've picked it up on the football field. We're developing mental
toughness, too. ... In my first meeting getting ready for camp, they
heard Appalachian State out of my mouth. They heard just what these guys
are going to come here thinking — that they're physically tougher,
mentally tougher than you are."
The one that got away
Matt "Big Guy" Maloney,
assistant athletic director for major gifts for the Pirate Club, stays
in touch with former Pirate Chad Tracy, who is healthy again and helping
the National League East Division-leading Washington Nationals in a
"Chad was here and spoke
to the players in the team room at Clark-LeClair Stadium several years
ago," Maloney recalled. "We had a recruit here with his parents and he
heard Chad speak to the team. He thought it was neat that Chad had gone
from ECU to the major leagues. He later committed and signed with ECU
after meeting Chad.
"I asked Chad if he
remembered that kid. He said, 'Who was it?' and I told him.
" 'Mike Trout.' "
Trout bypassed college
after becoming a first round draft choice of the Los Angeles Angels.
Trout is on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated. The 21-year old
is being talked about not only for rookie of the year but for MVP honors
He went 3-for-6 in a 14-13
win over Boston in 10 innings at Fenway Park on Thursday night, pushing
his average to .345.
Trout has a following
among Pirate fans although he went straight from high school in
Millville, New Jersey, to a short stint in the minors.
A lot of Major League
baseball executives apparently missed on Trout, a late first-round draft
choice at No. 22, but not ECU coach Billy Godwin.
The Pirates recognized his
potential but Trout recognized opportunity.
"That's one thing that's
tough to recruit against," Godwin said. "Money."
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08/24/2012 03:40 PM