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View from the East
Friday, August 24, 2012

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt

Defensive improvement still vital


Defensive improvement still vital
Scrimmages wrap up, season draws near
One-on-One Interview with Daniel Drake
One-on-One Interview with Dayon Arrington
One-on-One Interview with Grant Harner
One-on-One Interview with Warren Harvey
One-on-One Interview with Justin Jones
One-on-One Interview with Jacobi Jenkins
One-on-One Interview with Will Simmons
One-on-One Interview with John Lattimore
One-on-One Interview with Reggie Bullock
One-on-One Interview with Lee Pegues
One-on-One Interview with Andrew Bodenheimer
One-on-One Interview with Derrell Johnson
One-on-One Interview with Justin Hardy
One-on-One Interview with Damon Magazu
One-on-One Interview with Shane Carden
One-on-One Interview with Jeremy Grove
Impressive film clip brings Green, ECU together
One-on-One Interview with Rio Johnson
One-on-One Interview with Michael Brooks
Holland: 'Merger was not a good idea'
Positions at stake as players learn T.B.A.
Three sides of the ball times three
WBVL Audio: Coach Ruff Media Day Presser
Magazu: Getting past the big pick
Permalink: East Carolina 2012 Football Schedule
Permalink: Year-by-Year Recruiting Classes

By Al Myatt
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Improving the defense was the program mantra after the 2010 football season at East Carolina. The Pirates purely struggled after losing the likes of defensive linemen C.J. Wilson and Linval Joseph from the teams that won Conference USA championships under Coach Skip Holtz in 2008 and 2009.

Wilson and Joseph, of course, have progressed in their careers to play on Super Bowl champions with the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants since leaving ECU.

Holtz got out of town at the same time as a number of seasoned veterans on the defensive unit. Those that were left were seemingly wiped out by injuries during Ruffin McNeill's first season in charge of the program.

The Pirates did an incredible job to get to the Military Bowl that season considering the defense could lay claim to being the worst in the nation. The NCAA statistics showed in fact that ECU was 120th and last among all the teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision that year in total defense, allowing 478.8 yards per game. That's a little more than a quarter of a mile per game.

ECU retooled that offseason, switching from a four front to a 3-4 and hitting the junior colleges for immediate help from a personnel standpoint.

The Pirates rose statistically to 56th in total defense last season, allowing 376.3 yards per game.

With the quarterback situation remaining an unknown going into the weekend before game week for Appalachian State, ECU could use another quantum leap in 2012 by the defensive unit.

Offense sells tickets and defense wins championships as the saying goes.

Despite the pending identity of a starter at quarterback, the Pirates are apparently selling tickets, but the acquisition of championships may well depend on the flip side of the ball.

There was only one way for the Pirates to go last year and that was up in terms of defensive numbers.

With the uncertainty that inexperience at quarterback can generate, ECU needs to show considerable improvement on defense again.

The good news is that expectation is resonating within the program.

"Every day we step on the field, we're getting better and better," said junior outside linebacker Justin Dixon. "We're going to be a strong unit. We're definitely going to be a fast unit. Being assignment sound alone is going to take us far."

Dixon amazed strength coach Jeff Connors and his Pirate teammates with a 700-pound squat during summer workouts. Dixon bench presses 480.

"We've got to transfer the work in the summer time to the field," said the Smithfield-Selma product. "I put a lot of work in during the summertime. We all have put a lot of work in during the summertime. Whatever motivates us to transfer it to the field, that's what we've got to do."

Dixon was among a number of defensive players to be sidelined with injuries during the unit's dismal showing in 2010. Last year, the injury bug hit the ECU offense.

"Staying healthy is big," Dixon said. "That's my main goal this year. I hope that's everybody's main goal. We need everybody to be successful."

Inside linebacker Jeremy Grove and defensive end Matt Milner have already had bouts with ailments in the preseason but the prognosis is for both to be big contributors. Grove was in on a team-high 122 tackles last season as a freshman. Miner has 11 tackles for loss in his career.

"Teamwise, definitely go to the championship game (Conference USA) and go to a bowl game, have a winning record," Grove said of goals. "Defensive-wise, be top 25 in overall defense. ... The key game is App. That's all we're thinking about right now. Not making it to a bowl game last year made us real hungry in the offseason. We've been getting after it and we're excited to get a new season started."

Grove has rehabilitated from offseason shoulder surgery.

"Team-wise, we're as strong as we've ever been," he said. "We're as fast as we've ever been. ... We were hungry to get after it last year but we can take it even a step farther this year. We want to be a top 25 defense. We've got a lot of guys coming back and we think we can get that done. Last year, we traveled with two inside linebackers. This year, we're three deep and any of them can come in and get the job done."

Milner is a decorated student in addition to his talents on the gridiron. He studies the game and his opponents like a final exam.

"I don't see why we couldn't cut the defensive stats in half again," Milner said. "Getting to the top 25 would be really great. It's important to have a great defense to be in contention for the conference championship. The 3-4 fits our personnel very well. We have great team speed. It allows us to swarm to the ball."

Milner said the Pirates have been fine-tuning the scheme that was installed last season.

"The coaches are adding in stuff that's going to be good for us," Milner said. "We've increased our team speed and team strength with Coach Connors. We've got such great depth at all positions. That will definitely help us. There's going to be no drop off, whoever steps on the field."

ECU turnovers were inordinately high during a 5-7 season in 2011. Getting that negative aspect under control is crucial.

"We're one team," Milner said. "It's important you're behind your teammates no matter what, through ups and downs. We also talk about when you're put in those situations after a turnover. You have to be ready to bounce back."

More takeaways by the defense would obviously create more opportunities for the offense as it develops under new leadership.

"Our defensive backs definitely have big play capabilities," Milner said. "Coach (Brian) Mitchell (defensive coordinator) has been very good about giving them the right instructions — being in the right place, not letting them get the deep ball and being able to pick it off. ... We have some great athletes back there. ... They can help us. When everybody is covered, we can get in there, get some sacks and get some strips."

Mitchell quietly endured the criticism that came when the Pirates yielded 44 points per game in 2010. That figure was reduced to 32.2 points a contest last season.

"We were able to put a foundation in," Mitchell said of the revitalization of the defense. "Coach Ruff uses this word quite a bit. We were methodical in how we put it in. ... We wanted to play 11-man football. We don't want guys who are hesitant. We want guys who play as fast as they possibly can."

Mitchell sounds like a corporate executive when it comes to maintaining progress on defense.

"We're talking sustainable growth," he said. "We've got to amp up the effort. ... We've got to be relentless when we go after the ball. We've definitely improved on that."

Mitchell also coaches the secondary where only one starter returns, but junior college transfers and lettermen abound.

"Position mastery is something that I keep preaching to my kids," Mitchell said. "Within that position mastery is exactness. Do exactly what your coaches are teaching you to do but also take it upon yourself to go in there and study a little more film. Get in your position room and learn what the other positions are doing within this defense. We'll start to flourish and grow within this defense because if that free safety knows what that buck backer is doing, you'll know how your fit will complement this defense."

Mitchell knows the apparent improvements in terms of talent, depth, scheme and execution are only relevant in terms of the bigger picture.

"It's going to be predicated on wins and losses and how we end up this season," he said. "I do know this. Our kids have improved from the weight room. They're stronger. They're faster. They're committed. They're accountable each and every day. If I were to grade those things, those intangibles that you look for that help make a good football team, I'd say right now they're probably a nine out of 10."

App accomplishment up in smoke?

Five years ago, Appalachian State opened the 2007 season with a stunning 34-32 upset at Michigan.

This week, an unidentified former Wolverine player reportedly said many of his teammates had smoked marijuana the night and morning before the game.

If true, the revelation both explains Michigan's poor performance and diminishes the accomplishment of the Mountaineers.

Michigan athletic director David Brandon indicated that he was doubtful of the story's veracity.

"It's an unattributed source and, believe me, if I worried about all of the inaccurate information that flew around the Internet from bloggers from unattributed sources, I wouldn't have time to do my job," Brandon said in a radio interview with WWJ. "So, I don't know anything about it other than it sounds pretty ridiculous to me."

Wiley knows Mountaineer mindset

While John Wiley, ECU associate head coach, was on staff in Boone, Appalachian State seemingly received as much notoriety for the win in Ann Arbor as the three national titles the Mountaineers captured in the Football Championship Subdivision. Wiley, who also works with Pirate linebackers, knows the mindset ASU will have for their second trip to Greenville in four years.

"Three things they've always sold the kids on when playing a 1-A (FBS) school," Wiley said. "One is that they've always prepared to win. They've never prepared just to make a good showing. Two, what they sell the kids in these instances is that these guys didn't think you were good enough to play here — to create that chip on the shoulder mentality.

"The big thing, their calling card, is 'We are more physical and mentally tougher than these guys. If you'll be close to them in the fourth (quarter), you'll beat 'em. You're a tougher outfit.' That's the thing that Coach (Jerry Moore) sells throughout his program. He develops mentally-tough teams."

ASU is looking for redemption for a 29-24 loss at ECU in the 2009 season opener.

Wiley said the Pirates are like the Mountaineers in many ways.

"That's what we're about, too," said Wiley, who came to ECU with Coach McNeill. "What I've discovered here is that those factors have been a big part of the tradition here, too. ... Coach Connors started it in the weight room and we've picked it up on the football field. We're developing mental toughness, too. ... In my first meeting getting ready for camp, they heard Appalachian State out of my mouth. They heard just what these guys are going to come here thinking — that they're physically tougher, mentally tougher than you are."

The one that got away

Matt "Big Guy" Maloney, assistant athletic director for major gifts for the Pirate Club, stays in touch with former Pirate Chad Tracy, who is healthy again and helping the National League East Division-leading Washington Nationals in a breakout season.

"Chad was here and spoke to the players in the team room at Clark-LeClair Stadium several years ago," Maloney recalled. "We had a recruit here with his parents and he heard Chad speak to the team. He thought it was neat that Chad had gone from ECU to the major leagues. He later committed and signed with ECU after meeting Chad.

"I asked Chad if he remembered that kid. He said, 'Who was it?' and I told him.

" 'Mike Trout.' "

Trout bypassed college after becoming a first round draft choice of the Los Angeles Angels. Trout is on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated. The 21-year old is being talked about not only for rookie of the year but for MVP honors as well.

He went 3-for-6 in a 14-13 win over Boston in 10 innings at Fenway Park on Thursday night, pushing his average to .345.

Trout has a following among Pirate fans although he went straight from high school in Millville, New Jersey, to a short stint in the minors.

A lot of Major League baseball executives apparently missed on Trout, a late first-round draft choice at No. 22, but not ECU coach Billy Godwin.

The Pirates recognized his potential but Trout recognized opportunity.

"That's one thing that's tough to recruit against," Godwin said. "Money."

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08/24/2012 03:40 PM


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