Defense continues to seek improvement

Even in defeat, ECU's defense made a statement against Virginia Tech last Saturday. Although, it sees a lot more room for improvement.

Less than a week removed from holding the Virginia Tech Hokies to just 13 points and 53 yards rushing, the East Carolina defense is already focusing on ways to get better.

One of the primary areas of focus is getting off the field on third down. Last Saturday, the Hokies converted nine times on third down (9-for-20), which directly impacted their time of possession. Virginia Tech controlled the ball on offense for over 22 minutes in the second half alone.

"That was the difference in the ball game," said defensive coordinator Rick Smith. "I don't blame (the loss) on the offense, I blame it on the defense … It's our job to outplay our opponent's defense and we didn't do that."

Although, there is an ample amount of room for improvement, ECU's pass-rush has been nothing short but spectacular. The front-seven has accounted for 10 sacks through three games, which includes a six-sack outing against Florida Atlantic.

"I try not to, but sometimes I catch myself watching our front-seven flying around," said free safety Damon Magazu. "They're really physical, and they're fast and quick and they have great techniques that they learn from our phenomenal coaches."

A wrinkle in this year's defense has been putting senior outside linebacker Derrell Johnson on the defensive line as well as his familiar spot among his fellow linebackers.

Johnson, a 6-foot-2 inch, 264-pounder from Baltimore, MD, received an assortment of preseason accolades for his stand-out speed on defense and versatility. He was named preseason All-Conference USA and onto the Dick Butkus Award Watch List, which is an honor annually awarded to the country's best linebacker.

"He is a type of person where you have to account for him in your pass protection," defensive coordinator Marc Yellock. "He brings power and all of the sudden you can drop him into pass coverage also."

ECU's next opponent is the North Carolina Tar Heels (1-1), whose strength is its offense led by senior quarterback Bryn Renner. The Pirates haven't won against the Tar Heels since 2007 – their last win in Chapel Hill was in 1975 – with the team's most recent meeting being a 27-6 loss at Kenan Stadium last season.

Similar to ECU, North Carolina had an early-season open date and has been battle-tested. It opened its season with South Carolina and Middle Tennessee State. Despite the worthy competition, the Tar Heels still averaged 25 points in their first two games and will travel to Georgia Tech Saturday for their ACC opener.

To get an early jump on preparation, the Pirates have studied the film from last year's lop-sided loss.

"There's a lot to learn from even though some of the scheme is different," said Magazu. "You can still watch their offense and see what they wanted to do against a 3-4 (defense)."

Although, it is important to understand the tendencies of your opponent, the primary focus for ECU has been on itself.

"We've already started to game-plan but you don't want to introduce too much," said Head Coach Ruffin McNeill when asked about the team's overall focus in terms of preparation. "I would say it's about 80 percent East Carolina, 20 percent (North Carolina)."

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