The inside linebackers could be a strength for East Carolina in 2017. The Pirates have significant experience at the two spots and have added personnel that may contribute immediately. Ryan Anderson, inside linebackers coach, shared his thoughts on a range of topics on Thursday.
“Right now, we’ve got about eight guys,” Anderson said. “It’s a pretty old group. It’s kind of senior led. A lot of guys have got experience.”
Jordan Williams topped ECU in tackles last season with 77. He had 35 solo stops and 42 assists during the first season in Greenville for Anderson on coach Scottie Montgomery’s staff.
“The guy that everyone knows the most is Jordan Williams,” Anderson said. “He’s going to be at our mike linebacker position. We’ve also got Ray Tillman. He’s been in the program for awhile. He’ll be at our will position.
“Joe Carter, who’s been in the program as well for a long time, he is also going to be there at our mike linebacker. We also have (junior college transfer) Cannon Gibbs, who’s a newer guy who just came in the semester that started in January. He’ll be at the mike linebacker as well. Our other will linebackers will be Tony Baird, who’s been here as well. Anthony Gutierrez, is also a guy who came in and played some last season, and has been here as well.
“And then we’ve got some of the younger guys, guys who came in right now in this signing class. Bruce Bivens. He’s here now for second semester of summer school. He’ll be one of our will linebackers as well. Ben Norris has been working with us a little bit, too, at mike linebacker.”
Mike and will
The two linebacker spots that Anderson coaches are slightly different in terms of their responsibilities.
“Most of the time, the mike goes to the field and the will goes to the boundary,” Anderson said, “Your will is usually your weak side linebacker that has to match up and do different things in coverage. A lot of times, he’s doing a lot more man coverage than the mike is. But, honestly, with our guys, especially even with Jordan, he’s such an athletic guy. Jordan has played both positions for us in the past. That’s kind of a good thing to have a guy that can do both from an athletic standpoint.”
Williams is a senior who played on the high school level at Jack Britt in Fayetteville. He redshirted at Shaw University in Raleigh in 2013 before transferring to ECU.
He was second to Zeek Bigger for total tackles on the team in 2015.
“Jordan, obviously, has got a really good skill set,” Anderson said. “He’s a really good player, obviously. . . . He’s a really good player, a smart player. In my experience with Jordan, he’s been great. He’s grown from the time I had him last year to now. I think this is going to be a really good year for him, a breakout year, not just on the field.
“I think he’s going to have a great year on the field as well. He has goals and we’ve talked about that, too. Kind of looking forward, maybe kind of looking all-conference selection. I think he’s that type of a player when he puts all things together on the field.
“The biggest thing, too, that’s been great for Jordan, he’s taken a real leadership role in this offseason. It’s something that we kind of went into the offseason talking about. It takes time and, as an older guy, he’s done that. He’s done great with a lot of the younger players that have come in and kind of taken them under his wing and shown them the ropes. He’s done great with it and I think he’s going to be a big part of our team moving forward.”
Anderson’s crew will be competing for playing time.
“Probably the two guys that have come out of the spring that we feel pretty confident with are Ray Tillman at the will linebacker position and Jordan at the mike,” Anderson said. “After that, it’s kind of a mix and that’s kind of the great thing about having guys that played in your room. It’s constant competition for the next couple of spots and those guys are going to kind of work in there and back up. I think Joe Carter is making a push as well as Cannon Gibbs. Joe’s been here longer and has a lot of experience but both of those guys are battling right there.
“Over at the will linebacker position, you’ve got a host of guys. You’ve got Tony Baird, who’s been here but played a lot of mike in the past and is kind of getting the understanding of how to play will linebacker. You’ve got Bruce Bivens, who just came in as a true freshman so we’ll see what he can do. Obviously, we’ve got Anthony Gutierrez, who’s played in the past. You’re looking for a little more consistency to make sure things are always good.
“The competition part is great. Having all those guys in your room, you really get the best of everybody because nobody can take a day off.”
Tillman had 16 solo tackles and 10 assists as ECU was 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference in 2016.
“Ray has grown a lot since I got here,” Anderson said. “It’s not necessarily a credit to me, it’s just Ray. He’s really grown. I’m proud of him for it. … Ray has always been a very good football player, very athletic. He has a lot of explosion and speed. He kind of has a knack for playing football, tackling in space and doing things well.
“Ray has done a great job in the offseason of making sure he understands what he’s supposed to do on this defensive call, what his responsibilities are — run-wise, pass-wise — where he’s supposed to line up. He’s really taken it upon himself to make sure he gets in the playbook and really understands what he’s got to do. I think that’s made a difference. You can see a difference on the field. He’s running around. He’s making plays. Really proud of what he’s done and really excited for this season for him.”
Impact of injuries on ILBs in 2016
The inside linebackers dealt with some nagging injuries in Montgomery’s first year as a head coach.
“We were kind of thin there going through as you get to the end there but that kind of happens to a lot of people,” Anderson said. “As you go through the season and guys go down, you’ve got to kind of have a next-guy-up mentality. For the most part, we didn’t have too many.
“Near the end of the year, Cam [White] had a shoulder that was kind of torn up. Terrell Richardson’s hip was giving him some problems. Other than that, we were pretty good. I know Jordan had an ankle issue. Nobody had major injuries. They were kind of just nagging injuries that kind of linger on. It kind of happens during the season and you wait to get the season over with so you can get everybody really fully healthy. I think we’re at that point now. I saw those guys working out the other day and I think everybody looks good. Everybody is moving around well and I think they feel good.”
3-4 vs. 4-2-5
ECU’s transition from a 3-4 to a four front base defense won’t require major changes at the inside spots.
“From a coverage perspective, there’s not a ton of changes,” Anderson said. “We’re still going to play the coverages that we usually play. In the 3-4, you’ve got to figure out a lot of times, who’s the guy rushing and who’s the guy dropping. For the most part, that’s the same.
“The thing that changes is run fits and personnel. The great thing about it for us, it’s not too much of a change. Really, our third down package last year was a 4-2-5 package. Everybody in football is kind of doing this now basically because you’ve got to get an extra defensive back on the field. Teams are spreading you out so much and there’s so much speed with the receivers and different tight ends that can run like receivers out there.
“You’ve got to get an extra guy on the field that can cover those guys. That’s kind of what we’ve looked at. It’s been a good thing for us. It worked well in the spring. It helped us utilize some of the players we had on the team — get some of those guys out there with the skill set that can cover and do things.
“As far as changing things for the linebackers, the run fits (gap responsibility) are the only things that we have to tweak a little bit. For the most part, those aren’t major adjustments. They’re minor things. Our guys have got a great handle on that.”
SEC vs. AAC
Anderson was a defensive graduate assistant at Vanderbilt for three years before coming to ECU.
“Being in this league for a year now, the one thing I will say is a lot of times people look at the Southeastern Conference and they see the different players and the names, things that are kind of mainstream there but there are some really good players in this league,” Anderson said. “I definitely think there are some outstanding receivers and quarterbacks [in the AAC]. The speed of the players at this level, in my opinion, is close to the SEC. When you talk about receivers and some of the backs that we have and some of the quarterbacks we have are extremely athletic. The people do a good job of coaching those guys, too.
“I think, linemen-wise, you may see a difference, maybe a little bit bigger in certain spots, the offensive and defensive line, but skill players I’ve been extremely impressed with. The offenses in this conference are probably a little bit more explosive at times, too. In the SEC, you’re not really seeing a ton of games where teams score 40 points.”
Converted offensive lineman
Anderson grew up in Forest, VA, near Lynchburg.
“I started football when I was in middle school,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of funny. Growing up, I was always kind of the bigger kid but for some reason, my Mom didn’t want me to play football. I don’t know I guess she thought I was going to get hurt but usually when you’re the bigger kid, you’re not the kid who gets hurt.
“I started about middle school and played up through high school and got an opportunity to play in college (Presbyterian). It was good. I enjoyed it. It teaches you a lot of stuff about life.”
His earliest football memory was in the trenches.
“I started out, because I was a bigger kid, they put me at offensive line.” Anderson said. “I can remember my earliest football memory of going out to practice and being a pulling guard and knocking guys around. Then the coaches realized, ‘Hey, this guy can run pretty fast.’ Then they moved me back to running back. My earliest memory is playing offensive line.”
Recruiting responsibilities and approach
Anderson is assigned to recruit in Virginia and into Maryland.
“I pretty much recruit Richmond and going up I-95 in Virginia to northern Virginia, D.C. and southern part of Maryland.”
His emphasis in recruiting involves several factors.
“I think the biggest thing here at East Carolina is you’re coming somewhere that has a tradition and a fan base that’s pretty much unmatched,” Anderson said. “I tell guys that all the time. I spent three years in the Southeastern Conference and, in my opinion, our game day atmosphere is better than several schools in that conference and it’s just as good as several more as well. I think that’s the No. 1 thing when you’re talking to someone who is looking at East Carolina as a recruit to come here and play. That’s extremely important. The fans care about it. The community is passionate about it. There’s a lot of support here.
“I also think that the school has a lot to offer, too. We’ve got several different things. We’ve got a dental school, a medical school, a nursing school, engineering. There’s a lot of things going on at East Carolina that are great, things that people should know about that they don’t necessarily when they first think of East Carolina. Those are the biggest things, honestly.
“Then, I think, our coaching staff. We’re a younger, energetic coaching staff. Coach [Scottie] Montgomery is great. All our players love him. He’s very personable and relates to the players very well. Those guys can come talk to him about things. He understands because he’s been through it. He’s been on the highest level, both as a player and a coach, so all those things go into it if you’re looking to play here at East Carolina.”
Outlook for 2017
There is optimism for the upcoming season.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were at this time last year,” Anderson said. “I think we came out of spring as staff and players with a better understanding of who we are as a team, what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are. Then I think, too, another year of being able to recruit and to continue to get guys. I think we’ve gotten more players in here who are going to help us. Adding more pieces to the puzzle is great. That’s been good for us.
“I also think we understand who we’re playing a little bit better as far as having been through a year in the conference, understanding what other teams’ strengths and weaknesses are. I’m definitely excited about this year. Like I said, I’m excited about those pieces to the puzzle that we’ve gotten. I’m excited to have another year of working with our players.
“There’s no substitute for time spent and that bond that you build with guys.”
James Madison, the 2016 Football Championship Subdivision champions, will be ECU’s season opening opponent on Sept. 3. JMU is about three hours from where Anderson was raised.
“Had a lot of guys who I grew up with either played there or just went to school there,” Anderson said. “I’m pretty familiar with that.”
Anderson has been getting more familiar with the Dukes and returning quarterback Bryan Schor, who passed for 3,002 yards and 29 touchdowns last season.
“They’re obviously really talented,” Anderson said. “The quarterback, when you’ve got a guy who’s played and had success, it always helps them. For us, the biggest thing is making sure we as linebackers understand what they like to do from the quarterback position and how they like to utilize his skill set, understanding what his strengths are and what his weaknesses are and really trying to take advantage of that as the game goes on.
“Obviously, when you have an older quarterback, that’s easier said than done. They kind of know what they’re doing. They’ve been through the gambit. We’re trying to prepare for that. We’re kind of watching some film on them. … They’re a good team. They’ll be some things we can take advantage of, hopefully.”