Among other atypical aspects of East Carolina’s opening football weekend was the fact that an unexpected Sunday game robbed the Pirates of a day of preparation for UNC-Chapel Hill. But since everyone in purple seems to agree that the chief adjustments this week need to be mental, the abbreviated week might not be a major issue.
“We just know we made a few mental mistakes,” said senior defensive back Devon Sutton, ECU’s second leading tackler in Sunday’s 28-23 loss to North Carolina A&T. “We’re just focused more on the mental aspect. We know we play hard, and know we play fast. It’s more correcting little things that took away some big plays that can have a big impact on the game.”
Within the defensive unit, the players are fine-tuning their brains this week with what junior defensive back Michael Witherspoon calls “zoom focus.” They trust their training and their understanding of the fundamentals, he said, but the difference between knowledge and execution is in a laser-like attention to every aspect of game day.
As the Pirates have gone through each periods of practice this week, they have also been forced to address the frustration over Sunday’s loss and convert it to singlemindedness that can be used as a weapon against the Tar Heels. To direct that mental transformation, head coach Scottie Montgomery has looked no further than the team’s core of increasingly vocal leaders.
“There’s a lot of emotion, anger, in the fact that we didn’t perform the right way,” Montgomery said. “The anticipation of who we’re playing has a lot to do with it, and then there’s just a lot better leadership on this football team. I haven’t had to say very much this week to our guys about how you come out and prepare, because of Ray Tillman, because of Garrett McGhin, because of Alex Turner, because of Hussein Howe. And it’s been very good to see.”
Witherspoon, a junior transfer from Hutchinson (KS) Community College who notched five tackles against the Aggies, said that part of the mental reset is steadfastly tuning out the negative chatter from outside the locker room and practice field. He knows that the Pirate defenders have a tenacity that will allow them to attack every play hard and finish strong, and he and Sutton both said they are looking forward to showing that toughness to the home crowd that will be anxious for a home game free of crazy weather delays, against an opponent that the Pirate Nation loves to beat.
“Even though we’re trying to regroup, we know our fans are going to be there for us,” Sutton said. “We know that this game especially is going to be a huge game. It’s going to be a lot of momentum, so we plan to attack fast and get on top fast.”
Preparing for the Tar Heels’ offensive scheme has been tricky, Montgomery said, because they used a variety of personnel in their season-opening loss to California and struggled to find a rhythm in a performance that offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic called “pitiful” and “really unexplainable.” UNC gained just 38 yards on 28 plays in the first half, including six three-and-outs and three interceptions. Junior quarterback Nathan Elliott threw for 137 yards, one touchdown and four total interceptions.
“That’s part of the hard part of starting the season, is trying to figure out what’s going on,” Montgomery said. “They’re in a very similar situation, but different. I think we know our personnel and what we want to do with our personnel — it’s just about going out and executing.
“With them, it’s kind of one of those situations where we don’t know what we’re going to see as far as everything that they do — some of the people they’re playing on the perimeter, some of the people they’re playing in the backfield. They’ve got a few guys who might get more carries. We’re trying to keep an eye on that.”
Witherspoon believes that Pirates defensive backfield has some tricks up its sleeve that could result in another high turnover count for the Tar Heels. As he sees it, the defense is capable of performing at a higher level and frustrating UNC’s playmakers in week two, especially if those mental adjustments took root this week.
“I feel like we have more takeaway ability, and I feel that’s coming soon,” Witherspoon said. “It’s more the mental aspect of the game, recognizing different things so we can play faster and be one step ahead of the offense.”