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Friday, March 13, 2009
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Feature Writer

Front line defenders talented and looking to improve

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

Now for a look at the 2009 returning defensive units. On the surface, with eight starters returning from a very good defense, it would stand to reason that the unit will be very good in 2009. It should be, but a closer analysis will reveal that there are serious question marks in terms of depth within all the units, particularly linebacker and strong safety.

That said, a lot of young players got needed playing time in 2008, so the defense has the real chance of being even better in 2009, barring injuries. Depth or lack of proven depth, has made some positions more risky than you would like heading into the spring.


  1. C.J. Wilson (Sr): Unless he decides to enter the NFL draft early, Wilson will be a candidate for All-America in 2009. He is as good as they come in the country at his position and will create a ton of opportunities for whomever should fill in on the other side of the line as teams will surely look to game-plan for Wilson or avoid him altogether.
  2. Scotty Robinson (RS-Sr): The Pirates could not have scripted a better situation given the loss of high-octane end Zack Slate, the lightening of the thunder and lightening defensive end combo. Robinson may not have the same motor and speed off the edge, but he is very, very good and should factor within the system quite nicely. Look for Robinson to have a big year as teams come at him and protect against him one-on-one as they focus on holding off Wilson from the other side.
  3. Josh Smith (TR-Jr): Smith proved that he is a viable backup at the end position. He has a motor like Slate's, albeit it is in a more thunder-like body. Smith will provide very good depth at the position with the game experience to start if needed.
  4. Maurice Mercer (RS-SO): Mercer will have to pick it up in Spring to position himself for the type of PT that he will see in 2009 as a primary backup at the defensive end position. He got some game experience seeing action in five games in 2008 (picking up 2 tackles) but will need to be ready for prime time as the Pirates must have four defensive ends ready to go in 2009.

Position Analysis: Going into 2009, the position looks a whole lot like it did last season. Though the team loses outstanding, though undersized, defensive end Zack Slate, Scotty Robinson is more than adequate to step into the full-time starting role. With Wilson now a national name brand at defensive end, opponents will likely game plan against him which will give Robinson a perfect stage to demonstrate his depth of ability. Smith provides high-quality depth at the position. The unknown is who will step up and grab the other backup role. It would likely be Mercer, but with limited experience, only spring will answer that question.


  1. Jay Ross (RS-Sr): Tabbed the starter going into the 2008 season, Lindsay was lost for the season in pre-season camp. Strong enough to bang inside and quick enough to get to the corner and make a big play, Lindsay gives the Pirates a bonafide No. 1 running back, if he is fully rehabbed from his injury.
  2. Linval Joseph (Jr): Though he was fourth on the depth chart heading into 2008, Whitley was expected to be a difference maker in the backfield. He demonstrated that he has big play ability taking both a pass and a run over 50 yards for a TD. He carried the load at the end of the season and brings a load of experience back in 2009. Whitley will have to battle being tagged a fumble risk (he lead all ECU backs in fumbles/fumbles lost with 4/3), but his talents are no longer a doubt.
  3. Robert Jones (So) – 9 games four tackles with 2 sacks. After fighting through an early-season injury, Pirate fans finally got a glimpse of the speedster’s abilities to get through a small opening and hit the gas for big yardage. Rogers will provide high quality depth for the Pirates and can take the full the time role if needed.
  4. Antonio Allison (RS-So) – 8 games, 2 tackles.
  5. Allen Crowder (RS-Fr) –
  6. Anthony Garner (RS-Fr) –

Position Analysis: Like the defensive end position, the front-line players at defensive tackle are as good as they get anywhere in the country. Between Joseph and Ross, offenses have no safe blocking zone. During 2008, injuries to the primary backups at the position allowed for Jones and Allison to get playing time and they both demonstrated that they are ready to play more important roles for the team going forward. Throw in a pair of impressive rising redshirt freshmen in Crowder and Garner and the Pirates look to once again be stacked at this position going into 2009.


  1. Nick Johnson (Sr): Led the team in tackles (102) from his middle linebacker spot and will anchor the unit in 2009. He is a leader, a hitter and playmaker with a uncanny nose for the ball. He has proven to be very reliable and durable during his time in the program and will be an All-Conference candidate heading into the season.  
  2. Jeremy Chambliss (Sr): Chambliss has been a playmaker in the program for the past two seasons always seemingly finding a way to make an impact in the game. He did struggle in 2008 at one point, losing his starting job, but then regained it to finish out the season. He is a very good starter and will give the Pirates reliability and experience at one outside backer spot.
  3. Steve Spence (RS-So): Seeing action in all 14 games, Spence should have the game-experience needed to provide high-quality depth behind Johnson in the middle of the defense.
  4. Cliff Perryman (RS-So): Having gotten a taste of starting in four contests at the outside backer spot, it would be a solid assumption to put Perryman in the other outside spot heading into the season, but his experience is limited to nine games total, so spring will really tell the tale on Perryman as a front line player.
  5. Chris Mattocks (Sr): A converted safety, Mattocks more than held his own at linebacker and turned a few heads along the way. He played in all 14 games in 2008 and should compete handily for the outside backer job in 2009.
  6. Dustin Lineback (Jr): Lineback proved to be a reliable back up in 2008, but it is unlikely he will push for a starting job in 2009. Still, he provides reliability in a backup role for the Pirates.
  7. Austin Haynes (RS-So): Haynes saw his first significant action in the final four games of the season, but is still an unknown quantity in the unit.
  8. Melvin Patterson (RS-So): Patterson demonstrated some good abilities, playing in the first seven games before being injured. If he can regain form, he should be in the hunt for a spot on the depth chart at OLB.
  9. Matt Thompson (RS-So): Thompson picked up some experience in three games but he is still banking on potential.

Position Analysis: The good news is that the linebacking corps returns Nick Johnson in the middle. The bad news is that the rest of the linebackers, except maybe Chambliss, are really unknown. Add to that East Carolina's history of injuries at the position and you need to look beyond the two-deep to truly analyze the position. Doing that, this position gives the greatest cause for concern going into 2009. The unit should be solid in the front line with Johnson, Chambliss and likely Perryman holding down the starting jobs, but behind them is a lot of potential without a lot of experience, save maybe Spence who will back up Johnson in the middle. This unit will really need for its young guys to make a statement in the spring to live up to the quality of the position in the early stages of 2008 when Quentin Cotton and Pierre Bell were the mainstays on the defense. The Pirates have to have young players emerge in a big way – guys like Thompson, Haynes, Patterson, etc., - or the unit will be just a twisted ankle away from being a very good unit to a very questionable unit.


  1. Emanuel Davis (So): The freshman All-America will be looked upon to improve on an already amazing rookie campaign. More than his overtime heroics that made him an instant star, is the fact that he has demonstrated a unique combination of confidence to take on any opponent's best receiver and the talent to shut that receiver down in one-on-one coverage.
  2. Dakota Marshall (RS-Jr):  Over the final half of the season, Marshall demonstrated that he could be reliable at the corner. He had always demonstrated skills, but sometimes lapsed on plays and gave up a big gainer. With that eliminated from his game, he has proven himself to be dependable. He will have plenty of opportunities to become a star in 2009 as teams will surely opt to go after him rather than Davis, providing the two end up starting on the corners rather than sharing time as they did in 2008.
  3. Travis Simmons (Jr): Another game-changer and a sometimes starter, Simmons will rotate regularly into the starting lineup and has the ability to displace either Davis or Marshall in the starting lineup. He was the C-USA Championship MVP for a reason – talent and a nose for the big play. He will be a third high-quality lock down corner for the Pirates.
  4. Daryl Reynolds (Jr): In his career, Reynolds has demonstrated flashes of brilliance and flashes of less-than-brilliance. He is a talent that is looking more and more like another solid corner in the program. He will get his reps and there will not be any noticeable drop-off when he is in the game.
  5. Derek Blacknall (RS-So): Blacknall cut his teeth in 2008 getting ample playing time in eight contests. The coaches are very high on him and expect him to be a regular at corner before he exits the program. With experience now on his resume, he should be a quality backup in 2009.
  6. DeAndre Jones (RS-Fr): Considered highly-talented prospect who will look to earn some playing time in his first campaign.

Position Analysis: Coach Rick Smith turned a bunch of raw talent into a group of young corners who have proven that the position may be in the best shape it has been in since Kevin Monroe and Forest Foster teamed up for the Pirates. Davis, just a sophomore, is already known nationally as a rising star, following a freshman All-America season, while quietly, on the other side, Marshall has become a dependable corner. Simmons is a game-changer as demonstrated in the C-USA championship where he earned MVP honors, and Reynolds is a guy who can start or provide quality backup. This unit will be expected to improve as the main characters are more experienced and have greater understanding of the defensive schemes now. With two-deep talent at corner, the Pirates will be able to keep fresh corners in throughout the game with little appreciable drop-off in performance while also allowing Smith a ton of flexibility in different coverages.


  1. Van Eskridge (Sr): All-Conference free safety stud Eskridge returns for his senior season and is the unquestioned leader in the defensive backfield. He commands respect from his teammates and his opponents, has been ultra-reliable, and is always atop the tackle charts for the Pirates. He has proven to be a big play, game-changing safety and will again be an all-league candidate in 2009. Heart and soul of the secondary.
  2. Julian Carter (RS-So): Carter was a good backup at free safety for Eskridge in 2008 and gained some valuable experience in 11 games and should again play that role in 2009 while he learns from one of the better safeties to come through the ECU program. The position is solid for the coming season.
  3. Devon Wallace (RS-So): If you followed the depth chart, it would appear that Wallace will be penciled in, at least heading into spring, in the strong safety position following the graduation loss of both Leon Best and J.J. Millbrook. Wallace is short on experience and thus the position is definitely an unknown heading into 2009.
  4. Rahkeem Morgan (RS-Fr): A former prep QB. Eskridge was a former quarterback...will the Pirates see the same type of results from Morgan in the defensive backfield?
  5. Leonard Paulk (RS-Fr) – Was a defensive back who hits like a ton of bricks in high school but has no experience yet in college. Will be expected to compete for playing time immediately in 2009.

Position Analysis: While it appears that free safety is in good hands with front-liner and all-league Eskridge returning, the strong safety is a complete mystery. With the guys on the roster at the position, it would be a speculative guess that Wallace will man the position and if so, then the SS spot is the most glaring weakness on the defense going into 2009. Wallace has great potential, but unless a player like Patterson or Mattocks is moved back from linebacker, the SS position creates a potential weak leak for the Pirates.


  1. Matt Dodge (Sr): Dodge garnered all-America status at end of 2008, but even so, he was still way too inconsistent for a guy with his experience. Will he be the guy who kicked the first punt against Kentucky in the Liberty Bowl or will he be the guy who kicked the rest of the punts in that game, which hurt the team badly time and again. He improved between his sophomore and junior seasons, so expectation is that he will dial in better on his consistency in 2009.

  2. Nathan Przestrzelski (Jr): A backup in 2008, Przestrzelski is still unproven even as a backup.

Position Analysis: Until Dodge proves he can be consistent, the position will be a potential liability.

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03/19/2009 02:36:37 AM


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