East Carolina needs defensive improvement

Saying East Carolina struggled on defense is a kind way around the obvious. The Pirates were downright bad at times, in part because of injuries, in part because of a lack of experience.

However you want to look at it, no one will argue that East Carolina has got to get better on defense if it wants to get back to winning C-USA championships. So defense was a point of emphasis during recently wrapped up spring drills.

The Pirates are moving to a 3-4 as many other teams have done, to take advantage of personnel and also help defend against the spread. The Pirates did nothing fancy during their 15 practices except basic fundamental installation.

“We wanted to make sure we got that solidified before we moved onto anything else,” coach Ruffin McNeill said in a recent phone interview. “It wasn’t something we did overnight. We had planned it after the last game. One of the things that made it an easy transition was I had been a part of the 3-4 defense, everyone on my staff had been a part of a 3-4 defense in the past. The coaches did a great job implementing the scheme.”

McNeill believes he has players on his team who “stand up on two legs and run around pretty good,” a basic tenant of running the 3-4.

Spring was only a glimpse, though. Several players went down with injuries, including junior college transfer defensive end Leroy Vick, who will be forced to redshirt this upcoming season after blowing out his knee. Projected starting linebacker Lamar McLendon quit the team during the spring.

Linebackers Marke Powell and Justin Dixon are going to be key components to the restructured defense when they return from injuries. There also will be high expectations for junior college transfers John Lattimore and JoJo Blanks when they arrive on campus.

As for those who practiced in the spring, linebackers Jeremy Grove and Kyle Tudor impressed, along with defensive end Lee Pegues and lineman Derrell Johnson, who moved inside. If there is an area of particular depth it is the secondary, with seniors Bradley Jacobs, Emanuel Davis and Derek Blacknall returning, along with the emerging Damon Magazu. Blacknall has moved from free safety to cornerback and is projected to start there.

“Derek’s a really good athlete, and went into the spring defensively trying to get our best personnel on the field,” McNeill said. “Moving Derek to corner helped with our athleticism and it also gave Damon Magazu a chance to get on the field, too.”

The switch has got to yield better results than last season, when the Pirates were forced to outscore teams to win. With a high-powered offense behind Dominique Davis, that worked some of the time. But the Pirates ended the season with losses in five of their last six games. They gave up 40-plus points 10 times in 13 games and gave up an average of 44 points a game, ranking No. 119 in the nation.

The rest of the defensive numbers are just as ugly, as the Pirates were the worst in the nation in total defense, and among the worst in rush, pass, pass efficiency and first-down defense. McNeill does not have to remind his players about their struggles last year. They should be all-too familiar with feeling helpless to stop their opponent.

“In this game, you hope there’s a pride factor and I’m sure here there is,” McNeill said. “They played good defense here for years before we got here. Last year was not one we would count as having a good year. You would hope those guys have some pride to want to get better.”