Rick Smith wasn’t the answer in 2015. Neither was Kenwick Thompson in 2016 and the first couple of games the following season. Robert Prunty was only an interim and his permanent successor David Blackwell didn’t work out, either.
With a new East Carolina coach came another new defensive coordinator. But after just one season and more big numbers put up by the opposition, Bob Trott was also shown the door.
So as Blake Harrell was hired by coach Mike Houston last week as ECU’s sixth coordinator in the past six years, the question must be asked:
Have the Pirates finally found the right man to cure their chronic defensive ills and give them a realistic chance at getting back on the winning track?
It’s much too early to come up with a definitive answer.
Like several of the others before him. Harrell has impressive credentials. His defenses produced league-leading statistics, conference Players of the Year and postseason successes. He has also worked with Houston in the past, having been a member of his staff at both Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel.
But like Trott, this will be his first crack at coaching on the FBS level. While football is football regardless of where it’s played, you just never know how smoothly the transition will go until the new coordinator actually puts a defense on the field this fall.
As first impressions go, it’s hard not to be encouraged.
Harrell clearly won the press conference when he was formally introduced last week because of the energy he displayed and the candor with which he answered questions from the media — even though he steered clear of specifics when asked about the style of defense he plans to employ at ECU.
If this was a political debate, that ambiguity might have been a red flag. Because it’s a team sport, it’s actually a plus because it shows he has the flexibility to develop a system around the existing talent rather than forcing those players to play a favored system that doesn’t fit their collective strengths.
“Over the years you always change your defensive schemes and what you do year-to-year based on your personnel,” Harrell said. “So you have to find what’s best for your players, best for your scheme, best for the American Conference and gives us the best chance to win.”
He’s got his work cut out for him.
While the Pirates’ offense showed promising signs of growth in 2019 thanks to the emergence of quarterback Holton Ahlers and a array of young playmakers, they were unable to prevent a fifth straight losing season because of a defense that ranked 11th in the 12-team AAC and 111th nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of 33.7 points per game.
ECU ranked dead last in the league and 119th nationally in total defense, allowing opponents to roll up 469.3 yards every time out and were torched for 41 or more points in five of their last six games.
As important as the Xs and Os will be in improving those numbers, Harrell said they’re only part of the equation to developing a defense that finally gives the Pirates a fighting chance of winning close games.
“The big thing for me will be culture over scheme,” he said. “When you turn on the film, I want you to say, ‘Hey, those guys play with championship effort (and) championship toughness, and they’re fast and they’re physical,’ not, ‘Hey, look at this scheme or that scheme, this coverage or that coverage.’ It’s how we approach the game.”
Harrell said he plans to give all the players he inherits a fresh start and will “dive in head-first” in getting to know them both on and off the field. He doesn’t have much time to get that job done with spring practice only a few weeks away.
Those 15 practices, culminating in the annual Purple-Gold Scrimmage, will be critical in determining what ECU’s defense will look like and who will be on the field on Sept. 5 when Marshall comes to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the 2020 season opener.
While the specifics are still up in the air, Houston is confident he knows what he’s getting in his new coordinator hire.
And not because they’re friends and have worked together in the past.
“He has proven himself fully capable of leading a defensive unit of a very high level,” Houston said. “The numbers (his teams) have put up speak for themselves.
“I know what kind of energy and enthusiasm he’s going to bring to the practice field. I know the strong relationships he’s going to build with the players. I know what his work ethic is going to be. I know how organized and detailed he is. No one will be more prepared than we will on game day.”
Maybe the sixth time will be the charm.