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Thursday, March 19, 2009
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Feature Writer

Breaking Down the 2009 Edition of Pirate Football

With spring practice underway, the timing is opportune for Ron Cherubini to delve into the good, the not-so-good, the unknowns and the possibilities surrounding East Carolina football. Part I provides an introduction and focuses on the offensive unit. Part II analyzes the Pirates' defensive strengths and weaknesses.

Part II: Depth Will Tell the Tale on 'D'

All-Conference USA safety Van Eskridge (4) is a respected team leader and the
anchor of East Carolina's defensive backfield. (Photo: ECU Media Relations)

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

Frontline defenders talented and looking to improve


Now for a look at East Carolina's 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.

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. Lack of proven depth has made some positions more risky than you would like heading into the spring.

The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the returning Pirates. The ↑→↓ symbols next to each position header are an indicator of the relative strength or weakness of the unit. This rating is based not just on returning talent and experience, but more so on depth or question marks at the position.


  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 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 gameplan 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 good and should fill right in 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 in a more thunder-like body. Smith will provide very good depth at the position with the game experience to start if needed, though he will also likely help shore up depth in the interior line as well.
  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 fulltime starting role. With Wilson now a national name brand at defensive end, opponents will likely gameplan 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 the question. The unit’s depth took a hit when up-and-comer Chris Atkins dropped from the roster. As a result, the unit really needs another young defensive end to step up and provide depth.


  1. Jay Ross (RS-Sr): Since his first season, Ross has established himself as not only a highly-talented player, but one who has gotten better each season. Ross is quietly brutal in the middle. He doesn’t elicit the “Wows” that others on the defensive line do, but he is consistent and critical for the Pirates. Ross is as good as they get in Conference USA and should compete for all-league honors in 2009.
  2. Linval Joseph (Jr): Joseph’s massive size does give him that Wow factor and he, too, has gotten better in each of the last two seasons. It seemed like the DL got better last season when Joseph and Ross pretty much played the whole game. Joseph is truly a devastating player in the position and, barring an injury, should compete for all-league honors in 2009.
  3. Robert Jones (So): Nine games, four tackles with two sacks. Potential is the word and 2009 could be the year that marks Jones' emergence as one of the key stoppers of the defensive line of the present and the future. He has three more years to see if he can approach the defensive bar of excellence established by an earlier Robert Jones, the consensus All-America linebacker whom Pirate fans think of in tandem with ECU's 1991 dream season.
  4. Kwaku “Luke” Danso (Sr): A post-season eligibility check confirmed that Danso actually has another year of eligibility remaining, which is good news for the team. Danso, a mammoth tackle high on strength but in need of game experience and understanding, had shown great promise, particularly in short-yardage and goal line situations, before being lost midway through the season with an injury. His return in 2009 should give the Pirates a boost in the short-yardage phase of the game.
  5. Antonio Allison (RS-So): Allison got much needed game experience in 2008, seeing action in eight games. He is considered another of what has become a stream of highly-talented defensive lineman to come into the program. He should be a good backup in 2009.
  6. Allen Crowder (RS-Fr): A beast in the weightroom, Crowder was mentioned as a player who might see time in 2008 as a true freshman. An injury derailed that plan, but he should start to see playing time in 2009 as a backup in the interior. He will need to accelerate his development to be ready to go at any time during the season.

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. Crowder is an impressive freshman and should be a factor more in 2010. The team will need to keep the DT's healthy as they lost another talented freshman in Anthony Garner, who was dropped from the roster in the offseason.


  1. Nick Johnson (Sr): Led the team in tackles (102) from his middle linebacker spot and will anchor the unit in 2009. Johnson 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): Has been a playmaker in the program for the past two seasons, always seeming to find 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 in 2009.
  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 an 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 beyond his notable talents for laying the boom on offensive ball carriers.
  8. Melvin Patterson (RS-So): Patterson demonstrated some good abilities, playing in the first seven games before being injured and lost for the balance of the 2008 season. 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 rather than demonstrated ability.

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 for Chambliss, are really unknown at this point. Add to that the program'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 Mattocks, Thompson, Haynes, Patterson, etc., - or the unit will be just a shoulder injury away from being a very questionable unit.


  1. Emanuel Davis (So): The freshman All-America will be looked upon to improve on a remarkable freshman 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. Dekota 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. There is a good chance, though, that Marshall will be moved to strong safety to shore up that position.
  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 Marhsall 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 and quietly, on the other side, Marshall has become a dependable corner. Simmons is a game-changer as demonstrated in the team's league title win on Tulsa's home field, where he earned MVP honors, and Reynolds is a guy who can start or provide quality backup. If the team chooses to relocate Marshall to strong safety, it would really not damage the talent at corner, given the quality of players log-jammed in this unit. This unit will be expected to improve as they 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 coverages.


  1. Van Eskridge (Sr): All-Conference USA 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 a prime candidate for postseason recognition. He is the heart and soul of the secondary and opponents always look for him in game-planning and at each snap.
  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. He 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 would be penciled in, at least heading into spring, 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 quarterback turned safety…sound familiar? Eskridge was a former know the story. Will the Pirates see the same type of results from Morgan in the defensive backfield? Morgan – and the Pirates frankly – needs to really accelerate his learning in the spring to make himself ready for 2009.
  5. Leonard Paulk (RS-Fr): Was a defensive back who hit 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 slot is a complete mystery. There has been talk of moving Dekota Marshall off the corner to SS, a move that would instantly shore up this position without really damaging the corner position. If that move is made and if Marshall can make the transition seamlessly, the Pirates will be on terra firma at the position and the overall unit will be much more solid heading into 2009. Otherwise, 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 a weakness hitting into 2009.


  1. Matt Dodge (Sr): 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 as even a backup.

Position Analysis – Until Dodge proves he can be consistent, the position will be a potential liability. Throw into the mix that a new deep snapper will have to be broken in this season, and this position becomes more risky than it should be, All-America kicker or not. It should be expected that Dodge will be more consistent in his final campaign, but there is no evidence to base it on yet. If he is consistent, well, then, the Pirates should have a great edge in the field-position game in 2009.

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03/19/2009 03:18:47 AM


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