If it’s going to happen, colossal improvement is needed on a defense that finished 120th in the nation last year, allowing 478.8 yards per game. Low national rankings were prevalent in just about every major defensive category in 2010: 107th in pass defense; 107th in pass efficiency defense; 109th in sacks, 117th in rushing defense; and 119th in scoring defense.
In their Conference USA Championship seasons of 2008 and 2009, the Pirates ranked 41st and 71st in total defense, respectively, but ranked 30th and 36th in scoring defense, respectively. The rush defense was 27th in 2009 (pass defense was 107th) and things were much more balanced in 2008 with rankings in the 30′s and 40′s for the major defensive categories.
Like many other schools in the country, the Pirates are moving to a 3-4 alignment to combat the spread offense. In that vein, last year’s move to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley‘s spread system netted the eighth-ranked passing offense in the country and was led by quarterback Dominique Davis, who finished fourth nationally in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns. Compared to the 79th total offense in 2008 and 67th total offense in 2009, there is worlds of potential for this Pirates team if the defense can hold up its end of the bargain with the offense producing 437.6 yards per game (25th total offense) and 36.8 points per game (16th scoring offense) last year.
A 4-0 conference record quickly turned south in late October as the Pirates lost three of their remaining four conference games and four of their last five overall to finish 5-3 in C-USA and 6-6 overall, barely bowl eligible. In each of their final five regular season games the ECU offense scored 35 points or more. An embarrassing 51-20 Military Bowl loss to Maryland highlighted the Pirates’ defensive struggles as Terps running back Da’Rel Scott rushed for 200 yards and D.J. Adams rushed for four touchdowns in goal-line situations.
At first glance, the state of the defense at ECU is troubling with all three starting linebackers from last year no longer with the team due to graduation or for personal reasons. However, injuries plagued the defense in 2010 and the return of tackle Michael Brooks and linebackers Justin Dixon and Marke Powell will be key to springing a much better effort in 2011.
What’s more, Matt Milner and Derrell Johnson return at defensive end and will be pushed by sophomore Lee Pegues, who saw playing time as a freshman last year as others went down with injuries. Linebackers Jeremy Grove and Kyle Tudor have played well, too, giving some hope to the second level’s ability to clean up in run defense with Dixon and Powell expected to play big roles as well. There is talent returning to the front seven and the Pirates need to figure out how to put everything together in the new defensive scheme to vastly improve the rushing defense.
The secondary gets back cornerback Emmanuel Davis and safeties Bradley Jacobs and Derek Blacknall, each of whom recorded two or more interceptions last year. Blacknall will move to cornerback to fill the vacancy left by Travis Simmons’ graduation, giving the defense an experienced corner duo.
Perhaps the biggest key of all will be penetration along the line of scrimmage. ECU averaged 4.9 tackles for loss and 1.08 sacks in 2010, good for 99th and 109th in the country, respectively. The shift to the 3-4 defense should help put more pressure on opposing backfields with an extra linebacker on the field. ESPN quoted second-year head coach Ruffin McNeill in a phone interview commenting that he thinks he has the personnel that can “stand up on two legs and run around pretty good,” which is vital as they make this defensive transition.
Also easing the transition to the new 3-4 scheme was the coaching staff’s familiarity with the alignment. “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,” McNeill said according to ESPN.com. “The coaches did a great job implementing the scheme.”
If the defense makes some improvement from a year ago (they don’t have to pull a complete 180, but need to put forth some solid, marked improvement), this team could be the favorite in the C-USA East division, coverage of which has focused primarily on UCF after its eleven-win season. They sure have the offense to outscore their opponents in the East, but they’ll need the defense to step up so Davis, wide receiver Lance Lewis and the rest of the offense isn’t trying to outscore every team they face; something that will be especially important if they earn a trip to the C-USA Championship Game and have to face Tulsa, Houston or SMU—three teams with very prolific offenses.