In his route to college coaching, new East Carolina defensive coordinator Blake Harrell went through the high school ranks. A good DC must sometimes think like his offensive counterpart when making calls. Harrell’s first coaching job provided valuable experience in that regard.
“I was not one of those guys fortunate enough to go on and play at the college level,” Harrell said. “I always joke around and say, ‘ too short, too slow, not athletic enough.’
“I went to school at Western Carolina, which is only about 25 minutes away from my home town. The head coach at my high school (Franklin) offered me a volunteer position with the JV football team. I said, ‘heck yeah, that’s a way for me to stay involved.’ I love competing and just staying involved with sports so I took that opportunity.
“My very first job — on defense I had the whole back end. On offense I had all the skill guys. We only had three coaches at the time. On offense, I got to call the plays. Oddly enough, I called the plays in a triple option offense so that was a lot of fun. I told a group the other night, one of our games, I actually come out and went no huddle. I said I probably should have stayed with that, I’d be the Gus Malzahn of today. That was back, I think, in ’97.
“That’s how I got started. I was a student assistant at Western Carolina under Bill Bleil. After I graduated college, I coached at three high schools. McDowell, Fuquay-Varina and back at Franklin High School. When Fred Goldsmith got the Lenoir-Rhyne job, he hired me and Coach (Mike) Houston so that’s how we got to working together. That was kind of my start in college. It’s been a great career. I’ve been around some great people.
“I’m very fortunate to do that because that’s what it’s all about is being around good people and good players and that kind of thing.”
Coach Houston is also from Franklin.
“It’s in the mountains up there, in a little valley, about an hour west of Asheville,” Harrell said. “A long way from Greenville. When I was growing up if we went to the beaches, we went to the South Carolina beaches just because they were closer. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I ever came out to the east coast of North Carolina. … I grew up all my life in North Carolina, but I had never been to the east coast of North Carolina.
“I’m 41. That’s a young 41.”
Working with Houston
Harrell has a lot of respect for Houston. They won four conference championships together at Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel.
“Every chance you get to work with somebody, you find things that you really like and things that make them really good,” Harrell said. “With Coach Houston, it’s his presence that he has with our players, our coaches, his leadership. I always say it starts at the top. It definitely starts with him at the top, just putting a vision out there with our program, encouraging staff and encouraging players and they buy in to that vision and they want to go to work for him all day and the players want to play for him. Play their tails off. That’s one of the many things that make him special
“He’s a guy that can definitely be the CEO of the program if he needs to, but he also will jump in there and coach those kids as hard as any coach. He’s a special one to be around.”
Task at hand
East Carolina’s opponents scored 40 or more points in five of the last six games last season as the Pirates finished 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference..
“One thing coming in that I thought with our players, with our program and with our defense, we’ve got to look ahead,” Harrell said. “If you turn back and look in the rear-view mirror, yeah they were 119th in total defense (in the Football Bowl Subdivision) last year, some things of that nature, but that’s not where we want to put our focus. We want to put our focus ahead.
“A big thing for me right now, is just bringing energy, just giving kids confidence. Me, just being energetic as a coach, that way, it hopefully, rubs off on our players. I’m a true believer in the way you coach and the way your personality is, that’s the way your defense will take on your personality. If I’m kind of a grumpy, sit back, complain, whine — that’s what our players do. If I’m energetic, if I’m flying around, hopefully our players will capture that personality and it will be contagious. That’s my No. 1 goal, coming into ECU. Obviously, we’ve got to make improvements on the field but I also think that starts with that culture defensively.”
As spring practice approaches, Harrell is getting a grasp of the abilities of defensive personnel.
“Obviously, as I’m installing the defense, as we’re looking through things, we’ll go back and watch some of last year’s films,” Harrell said Wednesday. “I do get a chance to catch guys on film. … We’ve started our coaches’ runs, our mat drills in the mornings. We’ve already had three of those now. We’ve got three more to go. I’m in the weight room every chance I get. It’s about building relationships with those players and getting to know them.
“I’m a firm believer that those players don’t care what you know until they know you care. So that’s where I’m at. In just a week’s time of our mat drills, coaches’ runs, I’ve seen huge improvement in guys working their tails off and just on a mission to get better. That’s a positive.”
Mat drills sounds like a wrestling term but Pirate players are not grappling in the offseason.
“Mat drills is just no more than it’s kind of an old name for it,” Harrell said. “We’ve been calling it that for years. We just have some county fair stations … agility stations set up across the field and the kids go about three-and-a-half, four minutes at a station. It may be a sled push. It may be some type of bag drills, some type of cone drills where they’re just working at agility, speed, conditioning. All of those things together.
“It’s more of a attention to detail, how you finish a drill, mental toughness than it is anything about football. It’s builds the core of our program and the core of our defense.”
Houston said Harrell’s scheme has evolved since they worked together at The Citadel. Harrell was DC for an 11-3 team at Kennesaw State last year.
“I spoke to some high school coaches this weekend in eastern North Carolina,” Harrell said. “I told them, ‘when you turn on our film, I don’t want you to say, hey they’re this kind of defense — 4-2-5, 3-4, man free, post coverage … .’ I want you to say, ‘Man, those guys play fast, they play hard, they play physical.’ That needs to be our brand of football. That needs to be who we are at ECU.
“Beyond that, we’re going to be a multiple-front football team. We want to have disguises that not only confuse the quarterback, but confuses the O-line and also confuses the OC calling plays from the box. Give them multiple looks. We’ll always know what we’re in, but we’ll keep it simple enough for our kids so we can play fast and physical.”
The first spring practice session is March 17.
“Our first week of spring practice, we’ve got one defense in,” Harrell said. “Our No. 1 goal with that is just to get kids flying around, playing hard, playing with maximum effort, playing up to the standard of ECU football. That’s why I’ve only put one defense in that week. That’s our No. 1 goal.
“I’ve told our players, ‘it’s not what we do, it’s how we do it.’ If all we get out of spring is how we do things, how hard we play, attention to detail, how we do our fundamentals, then we’re going to be OK,’ because that is the foundation for everything else we’re going to do. Beyond that, you would like to find some guys that you trust and you count on that you know are going to give you championship effort play in and play out and build some depth there.
“You would like to get most of your defense installed. That way, when you come back and review it in fall camp next year, it’s ready to go and it’s not new to them.”
ECU’s season opener with Marshall in Greenville has been moved from Sept. 5 to Aug. 29. The Thundering Herd returns proven skill personnel from a team that went 8-5 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA in 2019.
“You always like seeing brand new quarterbacks instead of returning quarterbacks, but it’s going to be an exciting game, an exciting atmosphere, just for our football program as well as Marshall’s football program,” Harrell said. “Week zero, probably on national TV, all those things that surround a game. It’s going to be an exciting time, just for the community. As we go attack those guys, … I always say ‘take away what they do best.’ So take away their best players and what they want to do … Have them put the ball in somebody’s hands that hasn’t had the ball in their hands as much.”
The Pirates will host Central Florida in their league opener on a Thursday night, Sept. 24.
“I had a DC that was in this league that is now in the Big Ten,” Harrell said. “He said, in his opinion and I think he’s right on, that the American Conference is probably one of the top three offensive conferences in the nation, including the Power Five. … Every time I turn on the film, whether it’s Cincinnati, Temple, Houston, Central Florida, South Florida, whoever it may be, offensively, they’ve got some firepower and they’re talented.
“I’m kind of looking forward to facing those type of offenses and those type of challenges. Our kids, we don’t need to flinch. We don’t need to be nervous about it. We need to go attack it. That’s how we’re going to attack every day, whether it’s spring ball, whether it’s a meeting or whether we’re playing Central Florida or Cincinnati for the conference championship. We need that same approach.”
Harrell will apply his recruiting skills in some traditional-rich areas for players.
“We’ve kind of bounced that around a little bit,” Harrell said. “Most of my big area will be Georgia. I’ll have a small piece of North Carolina. Atlanta will be a big part of my area, which I’ve recruited for about the past 13-14 years. … And I think Richmond County, the Highway 74 area there, about five or six counties there. I’m excited about it. Beyond that, I’ll just kind of work around South and North Carolina looking for the top defensive players. Evaluate them and build relationships there as well.”
Harrell should feel at home when ECU visits Georgia State on Oct. 3.
“No question,” Harrell said. “Looking forward to that. Their offensive coordinator (Brad Glenn) was at Western Carolina when I was at The Citadel. We’ve had some good matchups over the years. I look forward to seeing those guys.”
“I was telling somebody (Tuesday) night, we were at dinner,” Harrell said. “This is a really, really special place and it’s special for these reasons. People care about football. They want to be good. You have support. People are excited about the game. You have the facilities that you need. If we had an indoor facility, we’d be at the top of the conference, obviously.
“I don’t know how it is at any other places at the FBS level but I know this is a special place. I’m really enjoying how the people are treating me and how excited they are about football. … We know that (success) is going to happen and we’ll get the job done. We’re going to work every day as hard as we can and as diligently as we can and make that happen.”