Blake Harrell remembers when he came to East Carolina as defensive coordinator after Mike Houston’s first ECU team had gone 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference in 2019.
The Pirates had yielded 33.7 points and 469.3 yards per game.
Those numbers were down to 25.8 points and 394.8 yards last year as ECU was 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the AAC.
“It’s night and day,” Harrell said of the difference at football media day Saturday. “We walked on campus that January in 2020 when I was hired, and just walking into a room of guys kind of slouched down and just guys that weren’t quite there yet, just kind of looking for somebody, some consistency and somebody to believe in them.”
Harrell was the latest in a string of defensive coordinators at that time.
“Now you walk in the room, and you got guys that are full of confidence, believe they can get the job done and believe that, ‘Hey, we’re going out there to win this thing. We’re going to compete for a championship,'” Harrell said. “That’s the biggest difference and that’s what Coach Houston has done with our program. Not just defensively, but just a huge part of our program.”
The Pirates are seeing the value of continuity.
“When I first got here, Bruce Bivens (linebacker) and everyone was here telling me how many different coordinators they had had and how many different linebackers coaches that they had had. The consistency problem was a true issue for those guys.
“They didn’t have success, and that was one of the reasons. Now, they’re going through the same terminology, the same defensive system, the same playbook they have for the past three seasons, so you see those guys out there snapping to things, running the defense and install this fall camp. It was just review for them. It wasn’t true install, it was review. That was a really good feeling.”
Preseason camp wraps up
Preseason camp concluded with a scrimmage Saturday morning.
“I think we’ve had really good preseason camp, and anytime you have an older football team and guys that have been around, guys that know the system, understand the defense in our case, it makes things go a lot smoother and a lot easier,” Harrell said. “The fact that you have your players all summer long now, so we rolled right into it, and they picked up and gave us really good effort. I think we got a chance to do some good things this year and get off on the right foot with fall camp here.”
Harrell believes in being aggressive.
“I just think you got to attack,” Harrell said. “Offensively, you want to attack, you want to be aggressive, so why not defensively? Why not go after the offense as well? Why be reactive? Why not be proactive about it and go attack them and give them different looks, give them different things to deal with, different problems?
“We always talk about, defensively, here’s your issues, here’s your problems. Well, let’s give the offense something to deal with and some issues and problems. We want to do that with an aggressive style of play. Coach Houston did that from day one with the culture here. We just want to continue that defensively.”
Loss of McMillian
Harrell was asked about the departure of cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian, who opted to become eligible for the NFL draft after his sophomore season in 2021.
“Jaquan is a special player and we’re going to miss him,” Harrell said. “Damel Hickman’s done a nice job out there at boundary corner. Had a good spring, had a good fall camp, and Damel’s an older kid. He’s been here for four years. It’s not like we’re asking a freshman to come in and play. Juan Powell’s now playing some corner for us, a guy that started multiple games for us and made himself versatile, both as safety and out corner. Came in as a corner and is back there now.
“We got those three guys, counting Malik (Fleming), and then Aapri Washington’s a transfer kid from the Buffalo that we’ve added, who has played a ton of snaps up there, started a bunch of games at corners, safety. So, we got four guys that we feel really good about and we got some younger guys that we continue to develop and build depth with. I’m really excited about that room.”
Leadership at linebacker
ECU’s linebacking corps has extensive experience.
“We got two fifth-year players with Myles Berry and Xavier Smith. … Then you add Chance Bates to the room, who started for four years at Kennesaw State and really in a similar defense, similar terminology. Those three guys go out there, step on the field and they’re field generals. It’s nice to have those guys out there.”
Thoughts on Leary
ECU opens the season at home on Sept. 3 at noon against N.C. State, which is ranked No. 13 nationally with ACC preseason Player of the Year Devin Leary at quarterback.
“Yeah, Devin Leary’s a special player,” Harrell said. “I think he’s up for some preseason Heisman watch lists and every bit deserving of it. Their offense is really good, and he makes them go. He can spin the football. He throws a really good ball down the field. … Just a really talented kid and we got our work cut out.
“We see a really good quarterback every day in fall camp, (Holton Ahlers), and I call him… This morning in film, I said, ‘He’s the Jon Stockton of quarterbacks right now.’ He knows exactly how to put the ball in good places, doesn’t put it in bad places, and makes you work for everything you get defensively. We’re going to see that similar to week one and Holton’s been challenging our defense each and every day and helping us get ready for that challenge.”
Harrell has experienced less stress this August.
“I don’t know if I’m sleeping better at night because of who’s on the field out there for us, or just the fact that we got those experienced guys and they’ve really bought into just going out there and doing their job every day and trying to get better every day. We’ve not had any setbacks, step backs, and they go out and fight their tail off every day to get better.
“The beauty of it right now is, our offense and defense, they keep making each other better. We got some guys on the side of the ball that stress us every single snap at wide out, running back, up front, and obviously Holton, Mason (Garcia) and those guys. If we take an easy approach and take it easy, we’re going to get bladed, so we got to bring our A game every day, which is making us step up every day.”
Harrell talked about the mindset of the defensive unit.
“For us, it’s always about the next play,” he said. “We make a good play, we want to go fight our tails off the next play. Something goes in their favor, they get a momentum from a play, boom, we got to snap around and play the next play. We know it’s not going to be a one-play ball game. We got to keep playing for four quarters, play our tails off, we know our offense is going to make plays, their offense is going to make a play, but we got to keep coming back at it and keep fighting every single snap.”
Harrell is taking a higher-level approach with his coaching.
“We were just talking about this the other day in the linebacker room,” he said. “I said, when I first got here, … I thought I was the cheerleading coach as well. We had to emphasize effort, we had to emphasize physicality and all the things that you see on film, we had to emphasize those things. We had to put that on tape every day and talk about it like, ‘Hey, here’s good effort, here’s good physicality.’
“Now, boom. The whistle’s blowing, we go compete, those things happen naturally and that’s the way it should be. Now we get a chance to coach at what I call the 500- and 600-level classes, where we’re coaching the finer techniques and the finer details and situations, which will help us down the road.”
The term “starter” has a broad context for the Pirates defense.
“We had a lot of good depth last year and I think we started 15 to 17 guys over the course of the season last year and about 22 or so would play a game. I think we do have good depth. I think I don’t look at our backups as backups. I look at them as starters.
“We got guys that, if one guy was to have a slight injury or something, another guy could fill in and replace him and I feel like he’s a starter, too. We’re excited about our depth and we’re excited about, defensively, our 22, 25, 27 guys that could go out there on a game day and we feel like we can win with.
Harrell’s unit also has a multitude of leaders.
“We got a bunch and it’s the same names we’ve heard for several years,” he said. “It’s Myles Berry, Xavier Smith, Jeremy Lewis, Gerard Stringer, Jireh Wilson, Manny Hickman, Chad Stephens, Malik Fleming. Julius Wood’s doing a great job back there. We got a bunch of guys.”
“We’ve taken in some good transfers too. … They came in as, ‘Hey, I want to help the program, help the team win,’ and at the same time they’ve done a great job communicating on the field and being leaders for us as well.”
Harrell came to ECU from Kennesaw State in Georgia and has maintained connections in the Peach State. Eight of ECU’s 14 known commitments are from Georgia.
“Georgia is my recruiting area,” Harrell said. “Basically, I-20 North.”
“It goes way back to Lenoir–Rhyne. When I was at Lenoir–Rhyne, Coach (Fred) Goldsmith was the head coach and we recruited mostly South Carolina. There happened to be a recruiting fair, I think it was like 2008, in Georgia. He said, ‘Yeah, you can go down there if you want to,’ so I went down there and all of a sudden, they had these recruiting fairs and at the time you walk around and you get VHS tapes.
“I got a bunch of VHS tapes and a bunch of transcripts, and I brought them back. Next thing we know we started signing players. Five or six years later in 2013, I think like 15 of the 22 starters were from the state of Georgia, that we recruited and turned out to be really good players for us.
“I’ve built some relationships over the years. Georgia’s obviously a state where they care about football and football is important. They play it year-round, for the most part. … Just some relationships I’ve built over the years there and some familiarity. Obviously, I lived in the area and from that close by part of the state. It’s been a good area for me, far as recruiting base, over the years.”