Coaches Corner: Rick Smith

Rick Smith returns to ECU to replace Brian Mitchell as the Pirates' defensive coordinator and highlights the front-runners for all of the defensive starting positions.

Rick Smith is back for his second tour of duty at ECU following a three-year stint at South Florida. Prior to joining the Bulls' staff, Smith spent five years (2005-2009) at ECU, which culminated with back-to-back Conference USA championships – thanks in part mostly to his defenses.

"I'm excited to be back. East Carolina my favorite place I ever worked," said Smith. "We're the only show in town on Saturday and people pack the stadium and it's a really electrifying atmosphere."

Now the defensive coordinator of Ruffin McNeill's staff, Smith embraces the challenge awaiting him with this defense.

"Up front, we don't have the players like Linval Joseph and Jay Ross, but we have probably more depth," said Smith, who was brought in to fix a defense that ranked outside the top 100 nationally against the pass in 2012.

"(In the) secondary, corner is scary. I could wind up playing if we lose two guys."

ECU graduated two of its best cornerbacks from a season ago – Leonard Paulk and Jacobi Jenkins – which prompted Smith to completely open up both of the cornerback positions for competition.

The battle at boundary cornerback will likely go down to the wire between sophomore Josh Hawkins and junior Detric Allen, whom impressed during the spring session. On the other side at field corner, senior Adonis Armstrong brings the most experience and is the clear favorite, but Rocco Scarfone and Deshaun Amos are in the conversation as well.

"Josh Hawkins was actually the starter early on, then he got beat out by Detric Allen," said Smith. "Adonis Armstrong really had a good spring. We're doing some things in the secondary to take some pressure off of him and to keep him out of so many one-on-one situations where he has no help."

Despite returning seniors Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson, both of whom started the lion-share of games last season, Smith expects to see closely-contested battles at both safety positions too.

"Those five guys, (Michael) Dobson, (Dominique) Lennon, Magazu, Thompson, and (Lamar) Ivey, are all dazzling and the verdict is still out on who the starters will be," said Smith.

Magazu missed the spring due to back surgery, but is expected to be at full strength in time for fall camp. After playing his last two seasons at running back, Dobson moved to defensive-back in the spring, which was the position he was recruiting to play by Smith. Even though Smith plans to keep Dobson at free safety, he hasn't dismissed the idea of moving him to strong safety.

"Right now if I had say who was going to start, I'd start Detric Allen and Adonis Armstrong, and I would likely play Josh Hawkins as the third guy and let him back up on both sides," said Smith. "At safety, I'd start Chip Thompson, backed up by (Ivey), and I'd probably start Magazu, backed up by either Lennon or Dobson."

It's clear the secondary will be under a microscope in 2013 and is the team's largest concern. But on the same side of the ball, is arguably the team's biggest strength: the front 7.

ECU returns its four starting linebackers, including leading tackler Jeremy Grove and Derrell Johnson, who was recently named onto the Butkus Award Watch List. Kyle Tudor and Gabriel Woullard are often times overlooked, but the two combined for 111 tackles last season.

"I think the heart and soul of this defense is our depth at linebacker," said Smith. "Our front 7 is going to be as good as anybody we play with the exception of Virginia Tech and North Carolina."

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