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Monday, July 2, 2012
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Features Writer

Excitement is the Word for Brian Mitchell

Summer Chat with ECU's Defensive Coordinator

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

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Brian Mitchell has been a busy man since spring camp wrapped. East Carolina's defensive coordinator has been hitting the road and looking to line up future Pirate defenders.

Football is exciting these days for Mitchell. With a ton of experience returning to a unit that has all the parts heading in the right direction, the Pirates are looking more and more like they may be resurrecting the defensive culture that won them two Conference USA championships not that long ago.

The unit, dead least in the national statistics less than two years ago, finished 2011 as a top 60 defense and looking better each time out. Most of those guys are back and, particularly up front, the Pirates are showing signs of having big-time potential. After Mitchell and his staff endured the pain of the 2010 season, rather than panicking, they dug in for the long haul and began building a defense fitted to the talent they had in stock. The result was a maturing group and newly found depth in positions where they had little to none just a year earlier.

On the horizon is the beginning of a 2012 season when, at least defensively, ECU fans are inclined to be at ease with Mitchell’s scheme and his players. The faithful are likely to approach the campaign relishing the prospects of a defense that might change games for the positive.

For Mitchell and staff, the cogs keep turning and the mantra is the same.

“The defensive guys, you know, our theme has stayed the same,” said Coach Mitchell. “Doing deliberate work was what we were all about. You know, let’s put the time in as a collective, and let’s develop position mastery at every position. I think our coaches did a great job of progressing the schemes, progressing the kids both mentally and technically.”

With a year of the 3-4 now under their belts, the players and coaches are diving deeper into the details and the results are seemingly a unit with confidence, talent, and determination to be the best in the league. And spring gave us a glimpse.

“First and foremost as an overall view of what we did this spring, we were able to develop great depth,” said Mitchell. “We knew we had about five defensive linemen who contributed last year in significant ways but they all redshirted for various reasons. Those young men added depth to the front that was already a position where we have two-years of experience.

“But this spring, top-to-bottom, there were 9-12 guys that can go at it to be a starter. That in itself lends great depth to the foundation of what we believe in — our front. Those guys did a great job not only in the run game, the pass game, but they also progressed in the overall scheme and part of that position mastery is not only learning what you need to fundamentally and technically, but also mastering your position within the scheme. I thought we were at least two-deep, three-deep in every position coming out of the spring. You can’t ask for more than that.”

And Mitchell watched that latter point evolve the hard way.

“That first year, we were coming out of spring with 14-15 guys who could help us out there in a game, but now I feel like there are 30-plus that can help us in football games going into this fall,” he said.

And also unlike the past…

“We did come out of spring healthy,” he said. “You know, for example, we have a young man we love named John Lattimore who was injured last season and we expected to get — maybe — two weeks of work out of him, but we got all four weeks out of John this spring and that was a tremendous bonus for us. And there were some other guys — there were some injuries that limited some guys, but all are expected to completely healthy this fall.”

Healthy, knowledgeable, and all facing capable competition at every position. The makings are of a unit that can be very good.

Coach Mitchell was kind enough to share more of his thoughts about what we are all hoping will prove to be a special unit for the Pirates this fall. Below is my Q&A with Coach Mitchell.

Bonesville (BV): Word around the program has been basically that the defense could be very, very good, particularly the front seven and specifically the defensive line. Working against our offensive line, do you feel like you got a good, true look at what each of these defensive linemen can do in a game?

Brian Mitchell (BM): We did… we did. I think that Coach Brandon Jones did a great job with the offensive line this spring. They changed some things up from a technical standpoint that we see on a day-to-day basis when we are scheming or playing guys on other teams. Which was great work for our guys. Their interior three are very stout and athletic up front and I think our guys got good work. The thing we look for in our guys mastering their positions is do they have a good stance, a good foundation, a good balance? Can they react off certain blocks, do they expect the redirect in certain situations? And I thought our kids — every last one of them — were pushing themselves in every day drills and it showed up on the football field. Everything they did in the classroom showed up on the football field and we were able install more because every kid here… their football knowledge… their football IQs have raised in the last year and a half.

BV: In talking about the defensive line, who were the biggest surprises in the spring?

BM: I don’t think there were any real surprises because we all know the potential for these guys. I will say this, going into spring ball after our self assessment of how each guy played last year, I have to say, Terry Williams played great last season. He showed that in the spring camp as well. He took two, three steps forward and continued to create competition for Michael Brooks. Umm… Jonathan White, Terrell Stanley, John Lattimore, Matt Milner… I could go through… Lee Pegues, his body has changed and he is looking like that dominant end in the 3-4 scheme. And, Crishon Rose, he is a young man who at 260 with an improved 40 time and gives such a great effort and showed some ability to dominate at times. I could say the same for all the defensive line guys on the depth chart, but we knew we had a group of guys going into spring with the potential to be very good. Coach (Marc) Yellock did a great job putting together the drills that these kids put in their toolbox to perform for spring.

Q&A continues below the following image

On the rise: Mitchell indicated that Terry
Williams is pushing top NG Michael Brooks.
(ECU Media Relations photo)

BV: Did what you see with moving Derrell Johnson and Maurice Falls back to the second level... was (it) met with some surprise given particularly Johnson’s fantastic work last season? Did what you see out of the defensive ends this spring serve to validate that move?

BM: Having depth at the D-line afforded us the opportunity to move Derrell and Maurice to outside linebacker. The loss of Marke (Powell) and Clff Perryman — we needed depth at that position — moving Maurice to the Sam position and Derrell to the Will because Jake was not able to go for the spring. We were able to do that. Michael — and just so everyone knows, Marc (Yellock) and Michael were playing games with me at the spring game with Michael going in the 4-technique… he won’t be doing that — but he is capable of playing any of the three (DL) positions, so that move was one we could do easily.

Q&A continues below the following image

Breakout predicted: At linebacker, expect
Derrell Johnson to be a big-time playmaker.
(ECU Media Relations photo)

BV: With Terry and Michael you have very good one-two punch at the nose, but what about Leroy Vick? He had such a good spring a year ago, albeit shortened with the injury. Are you expecting much out of him this season?

BM: He is a young man who, gosh… talk about a body change. He has a tremendous spirit about him. He is a kid who went into the weight room and could only bench a little over 200 pounds and now, man, now he is at 395 or maybe by now a little over that. We were not able to get him all the work he needed because of some injuries but he is a guy who can be a force in this scheme because he has some skills and at 6-6, 310 pounds, he has good lateral quickness and punch so he will get up in there somehow.

BV: On the outside, do you look at Matt, Lee, John, and Justin (Dixon) as sort of interchangeable, starter type guys?

BM: They are, they really all are interchangeable. Some of the guys are a little more talented than others, but what we are asking them to do down after down, play after play, is to execute and hold your gap and if they can hold that wall up, our backers will plug the holes in the run game and now your Justin Dixons, your Matt Milners, your Lee Pegues, now when they convert off a run block or whatever, to get in the pass-rush mode, they have enough athleticism to get to a quarterback. I think with our depth, we will have fresher guys rest them. The NGs can play 4 and the 4s (can) play nose and that is the beauty of our defensive scheme and that is how Marc work them.

BV: Did you run an even front much last year?

BM: We did and did it in certain situations. We were probably in a 4-man alignment about 30 percent of the time, but we kept the principles of the 3-4 and didn’t compromise the philosophy of the 3-4 front.

BV: Looking at the linebacker front, starting with Johnson, who was probably your best pressure creator on defense last year. Did you see what you expected from him in the spring to feel good about the move?

BM: Very explosive. He is a young man who Skip (Holtz) recruited as an outside linebacker. But we didn’t have the luxury to put him there at a standup linebacker position. But with the depth we have now, we moved him back out there. With the skills and the type of player Derrell is, he has to be a catalyst for us, a playmaker for us, because we are going to be in a front that features him more times than not. He did a tremendous job filling that role for us for the last two years while we had uncertainty there — average play at times — but now he has an opportunity to be fresh and with Chris Baker and Jake Geary, he is going to be a player to be reckoned with. And, honestly, that position is one that will have to be reckoned with because we need double-digit sacks from that Will position as much as we bring them on a four-man pass rush. I think Derrell with his pad level, his leverage, his love for the game, his shear ability to get to the quarterback and make plays, will be one of our best players out there as expected.

BV: Did you see an uptick in Baker’s production given the move of Johnson to the OLB position?

BM: We have, and to Chris’s credit, he did not get a spring last season and everything we were teaching was new to him so there were moments of hesitation out there as he tried to think through what he needed to do. His understanding of the scheme was not where we needed it to be. Our whole team had only been in the scheme for seven months at that point, going into the season. We had a working understanding of how progress and it was installed and our kids were getting the basic fundamentals they needed. But now, it has created competition over there between Chris and Derrell — you have to have that, you can’t just have one guy out there. You have to have a number of guys who can go there and work. And with what we do on third down, if a guy is athletic he is going to have a role there in our third down package. Chris is a very athletic young man who coming out of spring improved as much as anyone (learning the system).

BV: Are you seeing similar things from Maurice in his transition from defensive end to OLB?

BM: Maurice is just a true soldier. Like Derrell, we played him at DE that first year even though he is a natural linebacker. We had him at Will and at Sam and his hand on the ground last year, but now we have found a home for him at the Sam position. You know when you put Maurice with Montese Overton together, you have a great one-two package. Guys who have power and can play over the tight end and who can blitz off the edge and know how to play with great leverage and yet, you have a speed demon there who can match up and play coverage all day long. But, when you send him on the blitz, he is a force to be reckoned with. I feel really good about Maurice and Overton, and when Gabe Woullard gets in here, we expect more of the same thing there from him. Maurice has done a great job and all he said when we moved him was, ‘Coach I want to help this team.’ He is very unselfish and went about his business to have a very, very productive spring.

BV: So I hear what you are saying. We have depth you feel real, real good about on the defensive line and at linebacker. So are we looking at game-by-game lineup based on opponent’s strengths and areas of weakness?

BM: Yes, we all know it is about the matchups… scheme on scheme, yes, but if you want a competitive edge, it is all about the individual matchups. So you think, ‘Is Maurice more suited for this team or is Montese better suited?’ Or, ‘Is Dixon more suited for this team that runs a one-back and throws the ball more?’ So, yes, we have more options, weapons and answers for what other teams are going to throw at us.

BV: In terms of Jake Geary is (it) looking like he is going to full tilt for the fall?

BM: Oh yeah, he is lean, he is trim. I just had a great conversation with Coach (Jeff) Connors today about Jake. He is that blue collar kid that always, always brings his lunch pail with him every day. All he wants to know is ‘Coach, what can I do better?’ and ‘How can I help the team?’ I think he has progressed well from his injury and doing great things this summer.

BV: Moving to the inside positions, you got a lot of names stacking up there, but starting with Jeremy Grove, the frosh All-America. Do you feel that Jeremy is equipped to avoid a sophomore slump or fall off of his production from a year ago? Will any hype harm him, you think?

BM: No, no. Jeremy is such a well-grounded young man. Look, he knows his role in this system and what it means to be part of a collective. He understands that no one can be the show without all the parts moving in the same direction. He has tremendous maturity about his self and Coach (John) Wiley will be kicking in the butt if (he changes). He is a young man you want to be the face of your defense because he is going to be one of your best workers, the guy trying to win every sprint and to do the same in the classroom. He always pushes the envelope. When he was nursing the shoulder, he was still the guy sitting in the meeting room taking notes, sitting in film room asking Coach Wiley the questions, and doing everything he can (to) stay sharp. There is no reason why he wouldn’t be back to full force in fall camp. He is organizing the off-season workouts like skelly and film study and all the things we need to do to stay tight and stay a band of brothers to continue to improve this season.

BV: Looking at Daniel Drake, Kyle Tudor, Ty Holmes, etc., with the extra reps in the spring, did any of them separate themselves in there?

BM: John Wiley has done a great job bringing the whole group along. I mean, with Ty in there at Mike, we really, really didn’t miss a beat. I am not saying that Jeremy isn’t a special player at that position, but we have guys, football wise and production wise, that are productive within this scheme because the scheme fits our talent. We don’t need flashy guys to be productive. I tell our guys there is a book we should all be reading called, ‘Talent is Overrated.” When we talk about position mastery, we talk about being an expert at your position. This book says that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. Now, we don’t have 10,000 hours, but we can give them 100,000 reps to be masters at what we do. That is what our kids are trying to do and it doesn’t matter if you are second or third team, each guy invested that and this is why we were seeing Kyle, Ty, Daniel, you saw those guys flourishing because they have that scheme knowledge and desire to master it every day.

BV: Moving to the back end, you lost three starters which from the outside looking in would raise a ton of flags with people saying, “They are not going to be able to defend the pass.” Last time we talked, before the spring, you were very excited about the guys who will compete to fill those spots. Did spring have you feeling better or worse?

BM: I feel, you know, there is always going to be a little apprehension until you see them take it from the practice field to every play in the game. But I feel good about the work I saw this past spring. I felt that Jacobi Jenkins who has started maybe 10 games so far — I thought he stepped up his play on the field, like he cranked up his internal clock and just started doing tremendous things not only on the field but also he graduated this past semester and you see the maturity and growth as a person which allows him to keep things in alignment and not be distracted on the field. And I thought having Adonis Armstrong here behind him created tremendous competition each and every day on the field. Those two guys never wanted to leave the field, both were very productive within the scheme and complimented each other well. And even though they were going at it every day, I saw Jacobi step up and be a leader as if to say, this is what it takes every day to be good and productive and he took Armstrong under his wing. That showed great growth on Jacobi’s part because we are going to need both of those young men this season.

Q&A continues below the following image

Secondary to reload: Jacobi Jenkins, left, and Lamar Ivey head
to fall as the top field corner and strong safety, respectively.
(ECU Media Relations photo)

BV: And on Armstrong, was he as impressive as you expected him to be given his credentials and what you saw on film?

BM: More so. We knew going into recruiting — we watched him probably six different times — and we came back with the same conclusion. ’This kid can make plays.’ And it doesn’t matter if he didn’t look quite fast enough, quite tall enough, or big enough, this kid is a playmaker. When we got him here you realized that the competition he was going against to get nine interceptions a year was pretty darn good. That young man brought a work ethic and mentality that exudes confidence and hard work and I couldn’t be more pleased with Armstrong as a part of what we are looking to do back there.

BV: Now on the other side, from my vantage point, looking at Leonard Paulk, it sure seems like he really stepped up. Was that the case?

BM: He really did. You know, he stepped up there at that South Carolina game. You are always a little hesitant in your first start and he did a tremendous job there and all year long. Look, Emanuel (Davis) is going to be hard to replace, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it, of character and demeanor on the football field. Paulk is more talented but shorter on experience. But he will gain the experience because he has a love for the game and he understands what we are doing in this scheme. Physically as a 5-11, 185-pound corner, he can run, jump, and hit.

BV: It also looks like he wants to be a leader on this unit. Do you see that emerging in him at all?

BM: Each of these kids, I am not asking any of them to be a leader, but rather a productive part of the collective. Confidence exudes confidence, though, and he is a confident young man who will be a tremendous asset to the younger players because he has shown that he can get it done and those young men just need to follow likewise. He has already graduated with a 3.0-plus GPA, a community service guy, a guy who can lead, (a) leader by example. But he is an excitable kid, that is for sure.

BV: That is true. So, Coach, who else is in the mix over there on that boundary side?

BM: Rocco Scarfone is the No. 2 coming out of spring. He is a young man who redshirted last year. Very talented and savvy young man. He was a high school QB and he was the most consistent guy over there even though he was also running two other positions, nickel and the field corner. I wanted to create competition over there and I think Rocco is able to push Paulk and they will compliment each other as well. He is also pushing Detric Allen who is a young man with all the talent in the world, but his clock has not started ticking as fast as I would like it to... but he is an athletic young man who has the chance to do some things this fall to get himself established and possibly on the two-deep.

BV: So if I am hearing you correctly, you feel good about the guys competing for the positions, but you don’t have the proven guys yet?

BM: Yeah, I feel good about Jacobi if I had to go start — or Adonis — a guy at field corner. I feel good about (Damon) Magz (Magazu) at free safety. I feel good about Paulk at boundary corner. I feel great about Kris Sykes at the Nickel and at either corner position as a guy who can be a role player. I have guys with experience, but you need the game experience and develop those guys who do not have enough yet. I do feel we are more talented back there (than last year). You talk about Lamar Ivey over there at the Cat position (strong safety). He is a young guy who had he played last year like he did in the spring, he would have been the starter back there over Bradley Jacobs because he is more athletic. You can stretch the field with him and he has great football IQ. But he was a redshirt freshman and needed to sit back and learn from the established guy.

BV: With Ivey coming out of spring at No. 1 at the Cat, what does that say for Godfrey Thompson, the JUCO?

BM: Lamar held off — we call him Chip — Godfrey Thompson a little bit during spring. Godfrey, to his credit, brought in a work ethic of toughness and a mental component that you usually see in the senior. He is, gosh, he is going to be physical. He is athletic, he knows how to work, he loves this game, he loves being here at East Carolina, and at that position those two young men are going to be formidable and it is going to take two talented guys for us this season.

BV: What is the word on Desi Brown?

BM: He is another young man I have fallen in love with. Going into spring he was one of our back-up Cats and man, you could see how much he matured and do some fantastic things as a 6-2, 200 pound safety. He also did some outstanding things at our outside linebacker positions to make him more valuable to us. He is going to have a role somewhere, whether it is third down guy or special teamer, but he is definitely a guy we will have with us on the bus.

BV: Is Desi’s a case where you guys are not sure where he is going to go with his body?

BM: Going into spring, you are not always as deep as you like at some positions. We had days where there (were) OLBs who were in class and we needed a guy over there and Desi would go and take reps, which just improved his mental preparation seeing the scheme from a different perspective. But our goal with Desi is not to move him to another position, but the Sam and Cat should be interchangeable somewhat from the way the athlete plays the position and from a physicality perspective. Desi is staying at the Cat position because he is young and physical. He will eventually compete for the starting job.

BV: Now last time we talked, you said you felt uber confident about the tandem of Mags and Justin Venable at the free safety position. Did spring change that feeling or no?

BM: I do… I do feel good. They are both steady and consistent. Mags is just…Mags. He will always find a way to get it done and that is what we love so much about him. You can’t put a value on a young man who may not look the part but he performs the part. He has done a great job with that. He is a coach’s kid who knows how to get it done. There is not much that catches Damon off guard. He is that steady rock that is going to make sure that everyone is lined up on defense and be that calming presence on the field.

BV: It is interesting when you look at the position groups by unit, the leaders and stars, if you will, all seem to be in the middle with Brooks, Grove, and Mags. Is that a result of the system or do we have three very special players there?

BM: It is just how it happened, but if you were to build this defense from design, that is how you would want it. You would start with the nose guard, the Mike — or the Will, too — and Mags is the quarterback of the defense. You want those reliable guys at those positions.

BV: Looking a the defensive production in 2010 where you were dead last and then in one year you cut that in half — actually better than half — what are reasonable expectations for this year?

BM: Nothing is going to change. We are going to continue to want to be the best defense in this conference. We talked as a staff saying we want take another 25 yards per game off the top. We went into last season and said, let’s cut this in half, let’s get to 60th, and we did that. Actually we finished 56th so we would like to cut that in half this year and be a Top 30 defense. That is the expectation we are putting on these kids this year. We were pretty good in the secondary last year and we discovered some things in the run game in self analysis and through our visits to other teams in the off-season that are going to help us there. And just an understanding of gap integrity which is critical in this defense. Our kids now have a great understanding of where they are supposed to be, the weaknesses, the strengths. That is the step we took this spring. We didn’t just teach the scheme, but we taught the ins and outs, the strengths and weaknesses, the nuances of this defense. Our kids have a better understanding to where they can vocalize on the field to help in adjusting to how teams attack us.

BV: With all of the depth you have built — and it is relatively young and well distributed depth — is this a situation where you can start pacing the younger guys up, guys who maybe two years ago would be pressed to earn a spot on the depth chart?

BM: TO some degree, yes. We do not want freshman to be playing. Really I don’t know of a team in the country who wants freshmen playing unless he is a Jadaveon Clowney type who can start as a freshman over experienced guys from day one. We want to develop their football IQ, acclimate them to college, and more time than not that means they will not play as a freshman. Coming in, we were forced to play with the kids we had who were freshman and sophomores. They now are ready and we do have depth and we can run the system correctly. We are going to play the best guys, but to crack our top 28 now, you are going to have to be phenomenal.

BV: Do you get a sense from the kids that the collective mindset is that this defense must be a unit that changes games, that (returns) ECU to the days of being a feared defensive team?

BM: In any situation, it doesn’t matter if you are the offense or special teams, you always want to be the backbone of the team. The kids are vocalizing this. They want to be the strength of the team. They never want to be in that situation where we were the weak link. We want to be the strength of the team and you can say that is prideful, but no, to be good you have to play good defense. Our theme was, “Shut up and work.” We don’t need the accolades and we don’t care who is watching. All we are going to do is work.”

Now, we have some work to do, but we have many of the working parts that will get you excited about this group. Our kids are thriving in it. I want people to say good things about our kids. I want people to say good things about the coaches. I could care less what people say about me, but I want to make sure our kids are representing the university and showing that we can play great football, have a great program and a great head coach.

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07/01/2012 12:04 PM


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