Linebackers stay ready

East Carolina has officially ended fall camp and started their regular practice schedule leading up to the home-opener against Old Dominion in ten days. Inside ECU Sports was at practice to catch up with key linebackers about how the unit is looking so far.

Senior linebackers Derrell Johnson and Kyle Tudor, along with junior linebacker Jeremy Grove, have been integral parts of a Pirate defense that has been formidable against the run the last four seasons (aside from when they face Navy's triple option).

With big expectations for the 2013 season all three linebackers seem to be focused on improving their overall team defense.

Outside linebacker Derrell Johnson earned all of the preseason accolades. As far as Conference USA linebackers go, he was the only one included on the College Football Performance Awards (CFPA) Butkus Award Watch List (top 40 linebackers at the FBS level) and the first Pirate to be named to the watch list since Chris Moore in 2004 and 2005. Johnson was also named preseason First-Team All-Conference USA by Athlon Sports and Phil Steele's College Football Preview Magazine.

"The individual accolades don't really mean much to me right now," Johnson said. "I'm focused on winning this (Conference USA) championship. This is my fourth upcoming season and I have yet to win a championship so that's where my focus is. I'm honored and humbled to be a part of that (Butkus) Watch List, but right now I'm focused on helping my teammates."

With defensive coordinator Rick Smith's return to ECU, everyone's eyes are on the defense. The offense held its own last season, but the defense was unable to stop the big play.

Junior inside linebacker Jeremy Grove, who led the team in tackles for the second-straight season in 2012, was also named preseason First-Team All-Conference USA. He believes the new look defense under Rick Smith is heading in the right direction.

"We're a lot more confident," Grove said. "We're playing assignment sound football, everyone is running to the ball and we're playing as a team more. Last year, certain groups would shine one day and not the other, but that's not the case this year."

Even though he led the team in tackles, Grove wasn't named to the Butkus Award Watch list. He mentioned he doesn't buy into the individual awards and will be more excited about team accomplishments.

Senior inside linebacker Kyle Tudor should take over full-time ownership of the "buck" position (opposite Jeremy Grove) with senior Daniel Drake's departure last season. It's an opportunity he's ready and focused for.

"I feel like I'm prepared," Tudor said. "I know I'm going to have to take on a bigger role. (Inside linebackers) Coach Wiley told me I'll have to push myself so I can be better conditioned for the season. I feel like (strength and conditioning) coach Jeff Connors has me in the best shape of my life, so I expect big things out of the group and myself."

The secondary was the big sore spot on this defense last season, but Tudor has confidence in the unit moving forward.

"There's pressure on Derrell, Jeremy and I," he said. "But I honestly think our defensive backs are going to step up a lot more than people expect them to. There's a lot of confidence in everyone on the field right now."

Tudor was named 2013 Second-Team Preseason All-Conference USA choice by Phil Steele's College Football Preview Magazine.

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