ECU works with youth on D-line

While much of the attention has been paid to the change in East Carolina’s offense this spring, the defense is undergoing changes, too.

Under first-year coordinator Brian Mitchell, the defense is learning to be quicker and more aggressive to the ball. The Pirates will play more man-to-man defense this year and incorporate several blitzes into the scheme.

Defense has been the strongest area for East Carolina the past couple seasons, but it took a significant hit from graduation this past year. Only two cornerback starters return -- senior Travis Simmons and junior Emanuel Davis -- and while there’s spot experience all over the defense, injuries have made it difficult for some positions to adjust.

The defensive line is playing this spring without end Josh Smith and tackle Michael Brooks, who were both on the two-deep last year. That leaves end Maurice Mercer, tackle Antonio Allison, tackle Jimmy Booth and end Matt Milner as the remaining options on the line. Those four players have combined for 27 games of experience and Booth and Milner have no experience.

It’s a far cry from the stellar defensive line the Pirates boasted a season ago, which featured Scotty Robinson, Jay Ross, Linval Joseph and C.J. Wilson. Robinson, Ross and Wilson were seniors and Joseph opted to leave early and enter the NFL draft. That group had 197 total games of experience.

Last year’s defense ranked third in Conference USA in total defense and first in scoring defense, allowing just 10.43 points per game.

First-year head coach Ruffin McNeill said while there’s a lot of youth on his defensive line, he’s eager to see how they progress throughout the rest of the spring. That progress will ultimately give the Pirates more depth when the injured players are able to work back into the fold.

"We have some young guys getting reps right now and you want them to step up and take advantage of the opportunity," McNeill said. "At our Pro Timing Day, I saw four good-looking guys running for the [NFL]. I wish we could have them back. On the other hand, I'm anxious to see what kind of progress we make. We also have a few guys who are banged up and on the MASH unit right now, so I’m looking forward to getting this whole regime together."