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Thursday, June 16, 2011
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Feature Writer

New Defensive Scheme Hopes
to Turn Deficits to Gains

Q&A with Brian Mitchell Delves into 3-4's Implementation

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

Brian Mitchell
(ECU Media Relations Photo)


Q&A with Brian Mitchell
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One-on-One with...
(ECU Media Relations Photos)

Bonesville features writer Ron Cherubini conducted Q&A exchanges with East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (left) and Pirate defensive boss Brian Mitchell (right). The net result: candid glimpses into the thinking inside the program heading into the 2011 season. Links to the interviews:

Lincoln Riley Q&A
Brian Mitchell Q&A

More than anyone else in the East Carolina football program, defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell wishes he could go back just one year knowing what he knew following the 2010 season. He couldn’t have predicted that his defensive front would be battered before the first few games were done. And though the linebacking situation was less than desirable going in, it was not evident early on how thin the unit would turn out to be. As reality unfolded, Mitchell knew that the most uncomfortable place to be is standing between the rock wall of the past and the hard exterior of heightened expectations.

Perhaps, Mitchell says in hindsight, “I would have just installed the 3-4 then.” He suspected that his personnel might not be able to sustain the vaunted 4-3 presence that the likes of guys named Joseph, Wilson, Ross, Robinson, Johnson, Chambliss and Mattocks established in 2008-09. But to change the only defense his young defenders did know, Mitchell thought, well, that had bad news written all over it.

Consequently, 2010 happened, and the outcome was worse than anyone could have imagined.

Still, those who know ECU’s history know things can change in a hurry. Dire situations really can get better fast when focus is put on the problem, i.e., Larry Coyer. If you don’t know what that reference is about, bone up a little on your Pirate football history. The 1992 ECU defense was 105th in total defense out of 107 teams in Division 1 football. By the end of 1993 season, Coyer, with largely the same personnel, produced the 47th best defense in the land. It is possible.

From head coach Ruffin McNeill down to the water boy, this team is clearly focused on defense, and to talk with Mitchell, there is no doubt that the coaches are fully engaged in making a change that makes obvious sense.

For Coach McNeill, when his defensive coordinator put the idea forward, it not only made a ton of sense, it also validated the head coach’s faith in his young DC. In an instant, the defensive front went from highly suspect, to surprisingly — at least on paper — deep, if you count some of the players coming in during the summer. And the linebacking corps looks like a legitimate top-level group. The move to the 3-4, as has been discussed ad nauseam, truly does fit the personnel and hence, the linebacking corps, a horrid weakness a year ago, actually projects to be pretty stout asset, filled with some 10 athletic players.

Will they be great come opening day in Charlotte? Don’t bet the house on it.

Will they be improved? Much.

Practical implications: An improved defense coupled with ECU’s potent offense might evolve fairly quickly into a team that can win all the games it should and maybe even a couple that it shouldn’t.

Coach Mitchell talked extensively about his defense and his take on spring football. Though he didn’t offer up a depth chart if you read closely, you might be able to get some indications as to who he expects to be on it this fall.

The Q&A with Coach Mitchell:

Bonesville (BV): What is your general assessment defensively of spring ball based on what you wanted to accomplish and did accomplish?

Brian Mitchell (BM): We wanted to identify how well our players would fit into the (new 3-4) system. Of course, we knew we were going to be moving players around based on their abilities. From where we started and where we ended, I felt pretty good the last couple of weeks how our kids progressed from week to week. The numbers show it. The production the guys had and the understanding they have shown in applying the scheme, I thought our kids weekly and daily got better.

BV: Is it fair to say that this defensive scheme actually creates depth where you were thin last year, notably on the defensive line and at linebacker?

BM: You know, it allows us to put more of our playmakers on the field at the same time, for one. It fits our personnel. It gives us unpredictability of where the pressure and alignments are going to be coming from. And, then there’s our recruiting base… it fits the type of players we are able to recruit… the Justin Dixons, the Marke Powells, the Maurice Falls. We can find those kids that are 6-2, 6-3 that are 235-240 pounds… so why not put them in a scheme that is going to give them better leverage against the run and the pass?

That was our thought process going into making this change. Our kids, with Dixon and guys like Chris Baker (incoming JUCO), they are suited for the 3-4 scheme. You were asking about depth… yes, now we have depth at every position. Last year, we went into games thinking maybe 13-14 kids can play and not being able to give kids like Matt Milner and Derrell Johnson much of a rest. You can’t play this game nowadays with just two defensive ends. Now we feel like we can get quality production and quality players on the field with our first and second team guys. There shouldn’t be much of a drop off from a third end or a third outside backer or second outside backer because now we have guys who can be productive given the scheme instead of having, you know, to manufacture playmaking from guys who are playing out of their natural position. Now we can put these guys in a position where they can make plays because of their abilities and knowledge of the scheme and because the scheme makes best use of their skills.

BV: I know you wish you could have had all the guys who are currently on the rehab shelf right now to practice this spring, but are you feeling confident that guys like Dixon and Michael Brooks will be full speed come fall?

BM: I do feel that way. And I can say (that) for two reasons. One, now that our Xs and Os are installed, we have the technology here for our kids who could not practice to study and watch film to ensure that they can review the scheme and look at the drills and then make it applicable when they go out this summer and put in the extra work that they do. Secondly, the kids like Justin and Michael are tremendous workers. They are chomping at the bit to be back and part of something that, I feel, is going to be special. They are guys who wake up each day and eat and breathe football. They will be ready to go.

BV: I’d like to go through the positions a little… you mentioned obviously that this team is counting on Justin Dixon and Marke Powell to be stellar at the outside linebacker positions. Can we talk a little about the inside guys?

BM: Jeremy Grove and Ty Holmes are starting at the Mike position right now and they are carbon copies of each other. They are not going to be asked to play out in space… they are not going to be asked to double-gap read. They are going to have assignments. I thought Ty had a really good and productive spring. The mental mistakes are down tenfold from where we started last year implementing the 4-3 compared to we are at the same time implementing the 3-4 scheme. I thought the kids did a great job with Coach (John) Wiley in picking up the scheme. Ty really had a great spring. Jeremy had an even better spring than Ty so I am very, very pleased with where those two young men are. Then, you throw in a guy like JoJo Blanks, who will be coming in during the summer, you add another 6-2, 6-3, 230-240-pound physical guy who can be a real plugger. He is a guy we expect to be a focal guy in our run game and in our pass game, too. You throw in Kyle Tudor who did an excellent job at Will backer after Lamar (McLendon) decided to retire from football, he is a great kid and with his ability and toughness is well-suited for this scheme. You know, Kyle is an example of kid who by virtue of the scheme change, can be a much more effective backer for us where he is not asked to be as big a part of playing in space but rather he is in the box and had a great spring at it.

Then there is Cliff Perryman. He is a young man who I thought had a great spring. Not just from a playmaking perspective, but from being a quiet leader — a guy who might have a nick or bruise and still came out prepared each and every day. Last year, I don’t think Cliff had that internal fire like he had this past spring. So, you take those five guys and you add in Montese Overton and Zeek Bigger, potentially, as we try to decide where we are going to play those to young men, we are going to be pretty sound inside.

BV: Moving to the outside, everyone is aware of what Dixon and Powell bring. Can you talk about some of the kids whose names may not be on the tip of our tongues right now but who you expect to be big contributors come fall?

BM: Well, Cliff Perryman will be a swing backer for us meaning he will play some of the Sam linebacker position but also swing inside at times. We’re talking about Chris Baker, a junior college player coming in this summer from Hinds Community College. He is 6-3, 240 pounds and is a great pass rusher off the edge. He is a real physical player who played good football down there in a good conference in Mississippi. He is also a kid who is hungry and who has a love for this game and knows how to go about his work to get it done. Maurice Falls was a kid we redshirted last year and came very, very close to pulling that last year but we thought, he’s a guy who is 225 pounds and we would have had to play him at defensive end and we just couldn’t put him at that disadvantage. But in this scheme and now with him at 240-45 pounds, his body has developed, he is a kid with a high motor and a high football IQ, he can be productive for us on first, second and third down.

BV: Let’s drop down to the front three positions for a bit. Not knowing really how skills transfer from defensive tackle in an even front to nose guard in a odd front, can you talk about the players you are asking to play on the nose and how you feel about our kids there?

BM: Right now, with Michael out, Antonio Allison is a guy who I thought had a really good spring. He was healthy, really productive, and at times dominant. At 6-5, 295 pounds, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with inside. And, he has a great understanding of his role. He is not a flashy kid and he knows that he has to be a workhorse who commands double teams. Michael, too, he understands this. We need that down after down. Antonio needed to work on his flexibility and he did so working very hard with Coach (Jeff) Connors and it showed this spring… highly productive. Then there is Terry Williams, a kid we redshirted last year… some may feel he is a bit undersized… but at 5-11, 330 pounds, you are talking about a kid with a low center of gravity and a great first step. That great first step with a punch… he is going to be able to create havoc with the center. Jimmy Booth is a kid who played in spurts last year. He is still developing as a young player, but I think for the first time he is going to be healthy. Last year, he went into the season with a dislocated kneecap during camp that really hampered his growth potential and mindset there. He came back from that with a strong mindset and I think he is going to be a young man, with another good summer in the weight room, who has the chance to be very productive for us this year.

BV: You talked a little about the ends and knowing that there are high expectations for the junior college guy, John Lattimore, and the fact that last season you weren’t happy that Milner and Johnson were having to log 80-90 snaps a game. What should we expect from the group you will have?

BM: Up front, you really don’t need guys to play 80 or 90 snaps. If you want guys to be war daddies for you and get after opposing teams, then you need them to go 40-50 snaps which means you need a rotation. Whether you are the starter or the backup your snaps are going to be determined by how fresh and productive you are while you are in there. I have no problem if I have those three guys for 15 games — Matt Milner, Derrell Johnson, and John Lattimore. We need to develop more of our younger players, but those three guys all have good playing experience, good football IQs, and great athleticism for that 4-technique opposed to the traditional 6-6, 300-pound kid where you may suffer some in the pass rush for the run game. We feel like we have the best of both worlds with that lateral quickness where we can gap things up on the inside and also guys who can converge in passing situations as well. Lee (Pegues) may be that swing guy for us on the defensive line. Of course, we threw him in the fire as a true freshman and he did some good things. Mentally, I think he is more prepared having gone through spring and his body is going to develop even more and he is a guy who can give us snaps at nose if need be, but he definitely gives us that body type we need at the 4-technique along with John, Matt, and Derrell and can do a good job with it.

BV: Can you give us a little taste of what you are asking your ends to do in this scheme versus what they were asked to do in the 4-3 defense?

BM: Well we are trying to get them to do is to create a mismatch and play leverage football. So, if we put our 4-techniques head up over a tackle and especially in the run game, we are not asking them to overpower a 300-pound tackle. We are asking them to overpower the gap, whereas before, your visual key, your physical key were so much different. Now we are making the keys more simple to use their athleticism to win the one-on-one battle against that tackle or that guard based on the play. It puts our guys in a better situation athletically to leverage the ball within that scheme. I feel good about those guys. But we had to make the move to go to guys who had been around, had game experience, and that was what move we had to make.

BV: I felt that the secondary got kind of picked on by the press given what they were asked to do a year ago where the corners were having to cover guys for what seemed liked an eternity and the safeties were having to play like linebackers. Do you feel that the secondary is pretty good, despite the numbers given up last year?

BM: The first thing that came out of our player evaluations after spring was accountability. Be accountable for your position, be accountable for your job. Be accountable to your teammates. I think those kids have matured tremendously. We had a lot of first year players who didn’t really know where to go. They are learning that everything starts with themselves and once they take that to heart they start thinking in terms of 'Yes, I need to put in the extra time in the weight room,' and 'Yes, I need to put in the extra time in film study,' and “I need to work extra in the summer.' Now, they realize that they are accountable to everyone on this team because they recognize that they could have gave more (last year) to compensate for what we didn’t have last year. Because those guys were athletic enough and made a lot of plays for us last year, but now these guys are really asking themselves what more they can give and that is the mark of the mature guys who have played and been around our scheme and mentality, and I feel like coming out of spring, these guys were solid.

I mean, Emanuel Davis, all that kid does is work it. It doesn’t matter if we were focused on something away from him, you knew he was working, every play. He has that warrior mentality… you don’t have to ask it of him. Bradley Jacobs, because of some knee deals, wasn’t able to go through all of spring, but his understanding of the scheme and his commitment to what we are going to be doing is unwavering. Derek Blacknall, we are moving him to corner because he is a more natural fit out there body-wise. He is a kid who didn’t miss a beat and did a great job this spring for us. I think he is going to be a good corner for us. And, then, of course, we had a young freshman out there from last year, who just made plays every time he stepped out there for us, and that is Damon Magazu. We are putting him at free safety and it will be his job to lose. I tell you what, too, you are not going to beat him because of mental mistakes. He is a solid football player down after down and play after play with a football IQ that is off the charts. He is a true coach’s kid out there that understands the game and has been around it all his life and plays with that warrior mentality.

BV: Sticking with the secondary, can you walk us through the guys you will expect to be able to step in to spell the four you have already discussed?

BM: Behind Derek, will be JJ — I call him JJ — Jacobi Jenkins. I tell you what, I had that twinkle in my eye like a father does when a child finally gets it watching JJ. I thought Jacobi had a very good spring. He started to get a better feel for what to look for at corner and it is becoming second nature for him. And his fundamentals… they have improved tenfold since last year. He was a kid who came in as a wide receiver and was transitioned to corner. That is not an easy thing to do when you haven’t played that position. You can see he is getting that feel. Then, over at the strong safety position behind Bradley, we have a couple of really good kids in Lamar Ivey and Desi Brown. Both had very productive springs and have two different body types. Lamar is more corner-like, a 190-pound, 6-foot guy and Desi is that big 6-2, 215-pound bruiser linebacker-like guy who can play in space. They are both great learners — tell them once and they get it. I feel really good about their athleticism and football IQs.

Justin Venable will back up at free safety. He is another kid who has done a good job overall of improving his athleticism and body in the weight room. He has always had a good football IQ and has the desire to go out and push and compete for the starting job. Then you have Rahkeem Morgan and Leonard Paulk behind Emanuel to start out with, knowing that our corners can go at right or left. Those two are kids who really like to go out and get after it. Our guys are thriving in the positions we have them in right now.

BV: Were there any disappointments defensively in the spring, other than not having some of the guys who are rehabbing or not here yet?

BM: Well, you said it. It would have been nice to have everyone in camp, but we started out with a group of guys and you have a nick here and an injury there and we were able to plug in guys who were almost as athletic as the guys we have coming back or are projecting in this scheme so that was really, really encouraging. I don’t think I had a day all spring where I walked into a meeting room or a staff room with the coaches where any of them said, “Wow, coach, we can’t do this.” Instead, they were saying, “Wow coach, we are doing this with our less-talented players.” So, I was very encouraged. You always hope and pray that you can get your best players as many reps as you can in the spring, but they were out there getting those mental reps and preparing for getting ready during the summer.

BV: It seems the real rub of the spring game is that in playing your own guys, you can’t be certain how much better you are versus any drop-off in the offense. Do you feel like you have a decent gage on the improvement to date?

BM: We did get some answers. Not just personnel answers but answers about our scheme not predicated on personnel. I think last year, we were trying to make a scheme work that didn’t fit our personnel and it was like oil and water… it just didn’t mix. Of course, unfortunately, we were in a situation where we had to do that. This year, we think our scheme promotes our athleticism and coming out of spring, I really believe that each and every day our kids wanted to get better. Each and every day our guys were being productive. Each and every day they were winning battles on a consistent basis and I think that the competition out there between the offense and defense helped promote our confidence in our scheme and abilities —we have a pretty good offense.

Had I had this scheme last year — hindsight is 20-20 not knowing that we were going to have the injuries we had and a bunch of kids who didn’t fit in at positions like linebacker and end — we would have just implemented it then. It is one of those growing pains that we had and you can’t change schemes mid-stream. I think our kids are excited about the scheme… it fits them well. We have kids who want to be good and want to play great defense at ECU. Our coaches have done a tremendous job of embracing and implementing this scheme with our players. Coach (John) Wiley, Coach (Marc) Yellock, Coach (Duane) Price are doing a great job with our kids and putting them in the right place to succeed.

BV: One last question, how important has the change in the strength and conditioning regime become to the future prospects of the defense?

BM: You know, if you want to be good at something, you got to work at it. I think Coach (Jeff) Connors has brought in a mentality of winning, a mentality of hard work. I remember being down in Key West one year and we found this little grimy, grungy, 1960 workout gym where the guy who owns the place has skin like leather and he’s in the back there frying up some tamales and there’s a sign there that says, “Shut Up and Work.” That is what our kids are doing right now. Our kids are quietly going about their business working with Coach Connors and they are seeing the results in the kids. I mean, our kids are noticeably stronger then where they were just four months ago. With that development, it gives our kids more of an advantage on game day. Coach Connors has implemented what Coach McNeill wants and the kids are benefiting. As a coach, you can’t put a price tag on what Coach Connors is doing with them. I am looking forward to seeing these guys in the fall.

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06/16/2011 02:29 AM


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