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Friday, March 6, 2015

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt

Smith shoulders responsibility, talks spring

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Rick Smith had an agonizing 2014 football season and it wasn't just the heartbreak of losses to Cincinnati and Central Florida in the final seconds that stressed East Carolina's defensive coordinator.

Smith had his right arm in a sling on signing day last month, an indication of the physical torment he endured during a season in which his unit helped the Pirates into the Top 25 and contend for the American Athletic Conference championship in their first year in the league.

"On Sept. 18, the Thursday prior to the North Carolina game, the scout team, I told them to reload a play," Smith said Wednesday. "'Redo the play because you did it wrong.' I was talking to one of the corners about the way I wanted him to play a sprint-out pass. The quarterback for the scout team didn't wait for me to tell them to start the play over and run it again. They just lined up and ran it again. I wasn't paying attention and (strong safety) Lamar Ivey, on a full sprint, hit me on the left side and knocked me into the ground and landed on top of me.

"I tore all the ligaments off my ball joint of my right shoulder. Tore the labrum off. Tore the rotator cuff completely off.

"It was dislocated. They had to pull it back over the top and sew it back together."

Smith waited until after ECU completed an 8-5 season and a 5-3 maiden voyage through the AAC before undergoing additional repairs. Thursday marked eight weeks since his surgery.

"I had to wait until after the bowl game to have surgery so I didn't get a lot of sleep during the season," Smith said.

Smith, who will be 67 next week, already has one element of his personal game plan in place for 2015.

"I'm just going to get real deep this year," he said.

Smith analyzed some of the more excruciating moments of his second season on Ruffin McNeill's staff and examined defensive personnel as the program goes into the start of spring practice on March 20.

"We've got to get better in the secondary," he said. "We've got to know the difference between quick throws and play action. I didn't think our corners played as well as they needed to even though we did some things really well. That's the first thing as far as the back end."

ECU continued to be stingy in its rush defense after allowing an average of 116.7 yards in its final season in Conference USA in 2013. That was Smith's first season back with the Pirates after three years at South Florida. He was secondary coach at ECU from 2005 to 2009, helping ECU to C-USA titles the last two seasons.

"We were decent against the run," Smith said in somewhat of an understatement regarding last season's defensive unit.

The Pirates allowed just 111.8 yards per game on the ground in 2014. That ranked 11th among 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

"We were OK getting off the field," Smith said. "Out of 178 possessions, we had 131 stops, which means we didn't give up a touchdown 73.6 percent of the time. We forced punts 79 times. We did some good things.

"To win the (AAC), we have to do better (in late game situations). We lost to Cincinnati. We had a chance to win the game."

The Bearcats came back for a 54-46 win after the Pirates had rallied for a 46-45 advantage with 1:02 left to play.

"We were on the field the last play of the game against Central Florida and we didn't get it done," Smith said.

"I thought we played well enough to win against Florida but we gave up the 86-yard pass in the third quarter, which didn't help us any. We've got to eliminate the big plays."

"We've got some really good players we've got to replace. It's going to be hard to replace Brandon Williams, who was a great linebacker for us."

Williams was second on the team behind Zeek Bigger in tackles with 54 solo stops and 70 assists.

"It's going to be hard to replace (defensive lineman) Chrishon Rose. Lamar Ivey (strong safety) played well for us. Those guys are going to be hard to replace."

The last play against Central Florida was a stunner on Senior Night. Knights quarterback Justin Holman completed a 51-yard Hail Mary pass for a 32-30 UCF win.

Smith has studied the closing sequence. The coverage broke down on several levels. Smith also questioned what he might have done differently from a personnel standpoint.

"I made a mistake, judgement-wise, on who we had back there," he said.. We had (Dayon) Pratt back there, who's a linebacker, jumping up to bat the ball. We had Dominique Lennon behind him. Pratt jumped too early. Poor judgment on the deep ball by him. He's a linebacker. How many times does he catch deep balls? A month before that, Dave Nichol (new offensive coordinator), had talked to me about putting one of those tall receivers like Cam Worthy back there but I didn't listen to him. I should have made the change.

"The other thing is, Pratt was a really good receiver in high school. We never worked on that defensive scheme at night. Judging the ball at night is a lot different than judging it during the day. Every Thursday we did that play with Pratt.

"Another thing is that we had three guys who were wrong on that play. (DaShaun) Amos came out of man coverage. He was supposed to be on the receiver (Breshad Perriman) that caught it. You can see him at the five-yard line just stopping and letting the guy keep going. He should stay on coverage and try to strip the ball. Dominique Lennon was supposed to be five yards behind Pratt in case he tipped the ball up or he missed it but he's in front of Pratt.

"So you've got Pratt, poor judgment. Domonique Lennon did not do what he's supposed to do and the nickel back came off so we've got three critical areas which cost us a game, two DBs and a linebacker.

"We didn't play it well, probably didn't have the right people back there but that's something we can correct."

The ensuing bowl setback came with ECU playing shorthanded. The Pirates didn't have senior nose tackle Terry Williams and junior free safety Dominique Lennon in a 28-20 loss to Florida in the Birmingham Bowl. On the offensive side, running backs Breon Allen and Marquez Grayson were missing in action.

"Domonique Lennon had been beaten out anyway," Smith said. "He wasn't the starter anymore because Travon Simmons beat him out because Travon was making more plays. Where it hurt, was I didn't get to rest Travon with Domonique and Domonique had two good arms whereas Travon Simmons had surgery on his wrist and was in a cast. So was Lamar Ivey. We had two safeties in casts.

"Terry Williams. We missed him six games the first year I was back and Rose played great. Terry not being at the bowl game I don't think had any affect on us at all. ... Demage Bailey played great at nose. (Demetri) McGill played good. We played Rose at end. We played the run pretty good without Terry. Terry wasn't a great pass rusher anyway.

"I think what hurt us was we've got two safeties that missed a lot of tackles. They didn't tackle well because they were tackling with one arm. We didn't have any depth there because of Domonique Lennon."

An 86-yard scoring catch and run by Ahmad Fulwood down the ECU sideline completed the Gators' scoring on Jan. 3 and provided the SEC entry with a 28-14 lead with 11:20 left in the third quarter.

Smith has studied that play, too.

"Speed had something to do with it because we couldn't catch him but the corner didn't make the tackle," said Smith, who has coached on staffs at Alabama and Baylor among his stops, which also include an unbeaten team at Tulane in 1997 when he was defensive coordinator for the Green Wave. "The safety, who was a redshirt freshman, Travon Simmons, went inside the blocker. If he had stayed outside the blocker and turned it in, Brandon Williams was there for a 10-yard gain. We had everybody else running to the ball, too. The safety, Travon Simmons, jumps inside that blocker, (Fulwood) hits that crease and we couldn't catch him.

"If we had stayed outside the blocker, if that receiver had stayed outside, the safety would have made the tackle. If he had cut in, I promise you Brandon Williams would have made that tackle."

As ECU goes forward from a competitive effort against the Gators, which saw the Pirates accrue a 536-339 lead in total yardage, the defensive line should remain solid.

"Losing Rose I think is the biggest loss up front but we get Terrell Stanley back," Smith said.

Stanley missed 2014 following injuries from an automobile accident.

"I feel like we're going to be really good up front," Smith said. "We've got Terrell Stanley back, who started for us the year before. We've got Johnathan White back. We've got McGill back. Demage Bailey is a great athlete and he's got great strength. The guys who have played a lot of football for us, it's Johnathan White, Terrell Stanley, Fred Presley, McGill, (K'Hardree) Hooker played a lot for us. (Mike) Myers played a lot. You've got seven guys up front for three positions who have played a lot. You've got Kirk Donaldson coming back, who will be a sophomore coming off an injury. ... You've got two or three redshirt freshmen. You've got Shaun James, who will be a redshirt freshman. You've got Markel Winters, who will be a redshirt freshman. You've got Kyron Speller, who just got here in January. Depth-wise, that D-line, we've got 12 bodies for three positions so we're pretty much four deep. I feel like we'll be fine on the D-line."

The inside linebackers were a strength last season.

"Zeek (Bigger) is back," Smith said. "At mike linebacker we've got some bodies. Zeek will be a senior. Right now, he's backed up by a walk-on, Cam White. You've got Joe Carter, who's a redshirt sophomore who has a chance to be a decent player. We feel OK at mike. Drayvon Fairley is also there. You've got four guys there.

"Right now at buck, the kid that's really gotten better, Jordan Williams was our back-up last year. He's a walk-on. ... He's had a great offseason program. He's lost a little weight. He ran a sub-4.6 (seconds) this week in the 40 (yards). He went out there as our back-up buck last year and played some. You've got Ray Tillman who played a lot last year as a true freshman. We've got Tony Baird, who just got here who's a big kid (6-3, 210) so we've got seven bodies at linebacker. We don't need to forget about (Devaris) Brunson, who played some. He was on the field and tore his knee up. We got that year back but he's still not completely recovered but we'll have him full speed in the summer and in the fall. ... We went out and signed a junior college kid specifically for that position in Darius Wright, who's got three years to play two. ... He has real good speed. We feel like somebody will step up and we'll be able to replace Brandon."

Brandon Williams won a place in Smith's heart last season. Williams was in on 11 tackles against Florida.

"You watch tape and the kid just made play after play after play," Smith said. "He was a great leader, too. He's going to be the one I think we miss the very most."

The outside linebacking corps loses Maurice Falls but returns Montese Overton, Pratt, Pat Green, Joe Allely and Reece Speight among others.

Smith is secondary coach in addition to being defensive coordinator.

"I didn't think we played real good at corner last year," he said. "Josh Hawkins started out at field corner. The first four ball games of the year, he played as good as anybody could play. Then he kind of went into a mental staleness. I don't know what you call it but he just didn't play well. I didn't really have anybody I trusted behind him.

"I probably waited too long before I shook it up back there. Into the boundary, Detric Allen did not play as well this year as he did last year. I was backing him up with DaShawn Benton, who's really not a corner. I knew that. I tried to hide him. ... To the field (in spring practice) it'll be Josh Hawkins, Travis Phillips, who will be a redshirt sophomore, and Corey Seargent. He just got here. He started school in January. He ran a sub-4.5 this week in the 40. Those three guys will be battling it out at field corner Hawkins, Phillips and Corey Seargent.

"I'm going to move Rocco Scarfone into the boundary (from field corner). DaShaun Amos is going into the boundary and then we're going to put (Nhyre) Quinerly, who has also just got here. ... I'm going to look at Bobby Fulp, who was our back-up free safety last year. I'm going to look at him at corner. He's a 6-4 kid who has great athletic ability. I don't know who it's going to be. I'm thinking into the boundary, it's probably going to be Scarfone or Amos because they're older kids but I wouldn't count Quinerly out.

"Right now, to the field, I would say it would be Hawkins but I think Corey Seargent is going to give him a battle for that."

Simmons will retain the starting job at free safety going into spring practice.

"At the safety positions, right now, Travon Simmons will be the starter in the spring, backed up by either Bobby Fulp or Dominique Lennon," Smith said. "Domonique Lennon has some academic concerns. I'm not going to give him a lot of reps unless he's doing really well in school. Right now, he is. He's got all As and Bs in school. I'm thinking at free safety it will be Travon, Domonique Lennon and Bobby Fulp fighting it out.

"At strong safety, I'm just amazed at how Terrell Richardson played the last three ball games of the year. I'm really excited about him. He has really good speed. I moved DaShawn Benton from boundary corner into safety. I think those two will battle that out. Again, we've got two freshmen who have been here. (Blake) Norwood is at strong safety and (Drew) Turnage is at free safety. ... Then we've got Xavier Smith, who's a sophomore.

"We've got bodies. We just need to get them to do right. ... We've just got to get them lined up and knock the fool out of the guy they line up on, secure their gap and run to the football."

Injuries will keep several players out of spring practice.

"Jeton Beavers, a will linebacker, he'll not go through spring because of injuries with a shoulder," Smith said. "Brunson will do some things but no contact. Cody Purdie (defensive back) had surgery on a knee about a week ago. Those three kids will definitely miss spring."

ECU will open at home against FCS foe Towson on Sept. 5. Then there's a trip to Florida on Sept. 12. How much value will the bowl game be against Florida's new coaching staff? First-year Gators head coach Jim McElwain was hired from Colorado State.

"The main thing we can learn from the game is the guys who are coming back," Smith said. "You'll know what kind of athletes they are. We'll study the Colorado State film. The offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier) is from Michigan so we'll look at a Michigan game or two and see if Michigan was similar to Colorado State. Those two guys (McElwain and Nussmeier) were together at Alabama with (Nick) Saban so we've actually started talking about that a little bit."

ECU's defensive staff returns intact. Duane Price coaches outside linebackers. Associate head coach John Wiley works with inside linebackers and Pirate alumnus Marc Yellock is the defensive line coach.

"I have just a really good staff," Smith said. "I lean on them extremely hard. We're working about seven hours a day right now just trying to get better at what we do. I lean real hard on John. He's won three (Football Championship Subdivision) national championships (at Appalachian State) as a coordinator. Duane Price is a very good football coach. Very knowledgeable. I leaned on him extremely hard last year on third down calls. We were ranked in the top 15 (13th) in the nation in third down (stops)."

ECU opponents converted 69 of 202 third downs for 34.2 percent.

"Marc Yellock, I rely on him and John for the run," Smith said. "Of course, pass rush by Marc. I just kind of call what they tell me to call. I learned a long time ago as defensive coordinator your main job is to let your coaches coach, come up with a good scheme."

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PAGE UPDATED 03/06/15 03:24 PM.

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