Blake Harrell is preparing for his second season as defensive coordinator at East Carolina. His unit has more depth and experience than 2020 when the Pirates yielded 447.3 yards of total offense and 35.4 points per game in a 3-6 season.
The COVID-shortened 2020 campaign ended with wins over Temple and Southern Methodist — creating optimism going forward and putting the program at 3-5 in the American Athletic Conference with a loss at Tulsa largely due to an acknowledged officiating error.
ECU opens the 2021 season on Thursday, Sept.2, at 7:30 p.m., in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium against Appalachian State.
The Pirate defense remains a work in progress in preseason camp despite the upswing that closed 2020. Before SMU made the final score more respectable in a 52-38 loss in Greenville last year, ECU had established a 45-7 halftime lead. That followed a 28-3 win over the Owls, who were decimated at quarterback, but in three halves of AAC football, the Pirates allowed just 10 points.
The quest for consistency continues as the program emerges from the dog days of summer. The focus will soon shift to the Mountaineers, who were 9-3 overall last season and 6-2 in the Sun Belt Conference. Appalachian State received votes in the preseason coaches poll and is currently an 11.5-point favorite for the pending matchup in the Queen City,
Harrell is looking for all hands on deck on the Pirate ship. .
“I think we’ve had some guys that have really stretched beyond expectations and are doing a really nice job,” Harrell said after practice Monday. “And then you’ll see some players out there … We’ve got some guys really straining and giving us the effort we want to see and stick to the standard.
“But we got to make sure that all 11 guys on the field are pushing themselves every single rep, every single snap, every single day, to get to the standard and expectations of Coach (Mike) Houston of this defense, of this program, so we can go put a product on the field on game day to go win ball games, stop the run, get after the quarterback, win some turnovers and be a successful defense.
“So we’ve done some good things, and we’ll continue to do that, but we’ve got to keep taking a step each day. We’ve only got 17 days to App State. We only got 14 or 15 practices or so, and so we can’t waste any rep, any time, any single minute of the day. We got to keep marching forward. All our focus has got to be September 2nd. And all our focus has got to be the next rep and make sure we play the next rep with championship effort, championship standard, and making sure we’re getting the job done.”
The coaches put forth a challenge for practice to start the week after a scrimmage on Saturday.
“We told the guys going out there, ‘Hey, today is going to be your toughest day of practice yet. We’re going to make it your toughest day. We’re going to stress you to the max.’ Because we know we went on Saturday, we said a couple of things.
“One, if we went out there September 2nd and play like we did on Saturday, we’re going to get our tails beat in. And two, we’re nowhere near game shape. Well, how do you get in game shape, game ready? One, by stressing your body physically, and then two, stressing each other, with competition. Offense stresses the defense. Defense stresses the offense and makes it as challenging and competitive as you can possibly be. So that was really the focus of the day — just high competition, high energy, and just really stressing each other physically, too.”
Harrell summarized Saturday’s scrimmage in which the defense limited the offense to 2.3 yards per snap.
“I thought we did some good things, and to some people that maybe say defense played well, whatever this or that,” Harrell said. “But we went through the tape yesterday as a side of the ball. … We come back and then go through it again, the side of the ball. And we pulled about 45 clips out that we just focus on, that we can be better at. We can do a better job. And most of it came back to effort, energy, execution, and then lastly, knowing the situation. Is it third and five? Or is it third and 10? How far do they have to get to the sticks?
Harrell addressed consistency throughout the unit again.
“You might see on a play where three guys are playing with great effort and we’ve got four guys who aren’t, or you may see half the defense who are playing with great execution and one or two guys aren’t,” Harrell said. “You may see one or two guys celebrating the fourth down, but the rest of the defense isn’t. So we got to get all 11 guys on the field high energy, high effort, playing great execution and knowing the situation at the time. That’s kind of our focus moving forward.”
Harrell said the defense has improved although there is still room to get better.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were,” Harrell said. “And that’s to be expected. I mean, we started at ground zero, and you know as well as everybody else in Pirate Nation kind of where it was coming in and where it has been and the challenges ahead as a defensive football team here.
“But I think we’re far ahead of that. I think we’re far beyond where we were last year. I think you should see a different defense on the field now this fall. And I’m excited about that. I’m excited about how hard our players are working and what they’re doing and what their desire is. They don’t just say, ‘Hey, we want to be a great defense.’ They’re putting in that work every single day to go out and meet those challenges and meet their goals. And I’m proud of those guys for doing that and proud of the work they’re putting in. We’ve got to continue to make sure we do that every single day and not let a minute pass.”
Another scrimmage approaching
The Pirates will be building toward another scrimmage this coming Saturday.
“This week’s another install week for us, and most teams use a scrimmage two weeks out, so they’re about 14 days out and they scrimmage,” Harrell said. “Ours is going to be about 12 days out. It was just kind of like, ‘Hey, you always got that fine line of your second scrimmage. Is it too far out where you don’t have any live contact between that scrimmage and your first game? Is it too close where if you got somebody banged up, it wouldn’t be back in time for the first game?’
“So, you always go back and forth with that, but in our mindset in the defensive room, this is another game week. We’ve got some install going in this week and then we got another game to play on Saturday. Obviously scrimmage two, one or two older guys that we know what they’re capable of — you might get those guys out after their work that they need to get and make sure you get some guys that need to work in.
“So you’ll just kind of navigate that as you need to, but yeah, we’ll have a scrimmage this week and that’ll kind of wrap up camp. Thankfully, I think we’re not in school this week. So we’re still in camp mode. I think App State is in school. So their camp is over, so all they’re doing is practicing after school there, whenever their practice time is. And that gives us a few more opportunities to meet and walk through and hopefully a little advantage and gain a little advantage on those guys.”.
Mountaineers grooming Duke transfer
Harrell anticipates that Duke transfer Chase Brice will start at quarterback for Appalachian State.
“(He) started out at Clemson,” Harrell noted. “He’s from Grayson High School down in Gwinnett County in Atlanta there. Went to Clemson and transferred to Duke. Well that’s where he’s played most of his football at, and then he grad transferred to App State. And I think the Duke offense with what they were asking him to do in that offense and what App State asks their quarterback to do is two totally different things. …
“I think a lot of folks out there may look at his performance last year in a Duke jersey, but you got to understand what they asked him to do at Duke, read defenses, read coverages, run RPO (run-pass options), throw the ball around, is not what App State’s going to ask him to do. App State is going to ask him to operate the offense, hand the ball to the tailback, run play-action, run the naked (bootleg).
“And a lot of times when you have an effective running game, you’re going to have a receiver wide open. … So our number one job is to stop that run game. And that way we know we put him in a drop back situation where we know the pass is coming. If we can’t stop the run game, then Chase Brice’s job is easy. And he’s a good football player. He’s a Senior Bowl, watch-list guy, highly rated out of high school. He’s got a really good arm. He can throw it down the field, make all the throws. He’ll be the starter, and he’s a good football player.”
Good players make good coaches and recent recruiting appears to be going well.
“Well, I think just first of all, the guys we’ve already signed and got on campus, there’s some guys … that are standing out,” Harrell said. “And really excited about those guys and their future here. You would like to get those guys in some ball games this fall. Some of them that will end up playing a lot of snaps, you may go ahead and play them. Some of them, you might be able to redshirt them and keep them extra time here.
“So that’d be awesome too, but really excited about those. And I think defensively where we are in this coming up recruiting class for ’22, just really fired up about those guys. I mean, we got some players that you look down the road and so you can see them fit in our scheme and being really good Pirates and really good guys, really good players in the American Conference.”
Who might step up?
Harrell was asked about players who might move into roles as significant contributors for the upcoming season.
“You know the guys that have always been around, the Bruce Bivens, Xavier Smith (inside linebackers),” Harrell said. “D.J. Ford (safety, transfer from UNC) has been talked about a lot by now. So all those guys we already know about. Gerard Stringer (safety) was a starter two years ago. He’s had a really, really solid camp.
“Demetrius Mauney (safety), who moved to defense, he’s going to help us somewhere, somehow on defense this year, a package situation of some sort there. Obviously, Jeremy Lewis (outside linebacker), we keep talking about him just moving from tight end, really excited about him. There’s numerous guys there and hopefully a few more to come along as well.”