Top five status

ECU's rush defense has been playing lights out through five games and is currently ranked fifth in the nation. Inside ECU Sports has a look at what has this unit performing at such a high level.

Head coach Ruffin McNeill has to be happy with how his defense has looked against the run in 2013.

Through five games, the Pirates have only let one opponent (Florida Atlantic) break the 100-yard mark on the ground and are holding opposing teams to an average of 80.6 yards a game – a number that has ECU's rush defense currently ranked fifth in the nation.

McNeill has stopping the run at the top of his list when it comes to ways to win. He is impressed with the effort of his team thus far.

"We take pride in it," said McNeill. "You have to be able to control one part of an offense and I'm proud of how we've done. We have a lot of games left and good teams to face. If we continue to be disciplined in our gap responsibilities and communication we'll be fine. I think we've done a good job of that, the coaches are doing a good job teaching and our guys are being coachable."

Defensive coordinator Rick Smith's return to ECU has this defense playing with an edge. Smith believes it's no coincidence the defense is having success against the run; he mentioned it's a point of emphasis.

"Our primary objective is to stop the run," Smith said. "It has been the system here since before I was hired. I've been in a 3-4 (defense) before at Georgia Tech and Alabama, but never coordinated one. The defensive staff has done a great job teaching me the defense. The one thing I've brought to the defense is more coverages we have a lot more multiple looks on the back end."

Senior free safety Damon Magazu has been an integral part of stopping the run. Magazu led the team with 11 tackles last game at Middle Tennessee State and had the game-sealing interception.

Although he finds his home in the secondary, Magazu thinks coming up to stop the run is an important part of a safety's game.

"It's a big part of my game," said Magazu. "Certain coverages I play pass-first, certain coverages I play run-first so it depends on what we're running. But when I'm playing run-first I try to be patient so when I see a hole open up I can get to it. It sounds simple, but it's about playing like -when I was in Pee-Wee, it's just go get the ball."

When starting linebacker Jeremy Grove went down with a chest injury during the second game of the season against Florida Atlantic there were some question marks about who would step up. That's when sophomore Zeek Bigger saw his chance to make his mark.

In his first start against Virginia Tech, Bigger tied for second in tackles with Damon Magazu with nine total. It's hard to believe that the defense would be so effective against the run without their leading tackler from last season (Grove), but that's the case so far. Bigger is not surprised by the linebacking corps' success.

"We're brothers," Bigger said about the unit. "We don't look to let each other down or make mistakes…we keep grinding at all times. We know we have to stop the run, if you can't stop the run it's going to be a long game. That's what we look to do, after that we look for play-action and passes which we know people will do. It's about being real tight with each other."

The good news for ECU is the linebacking unit should get better starting this week. Jeremy Grove is probable for Saturday's matchup with Tulane and is ready to be back out on the field.

"It killed me watching some of the games I missed," Grove said. "They were great games I would have loved to have been out there for. My chest feels great and it's great to be back out here with the team."

Grove also had nice things to say about the play of Zeek Bigger.

"(Zeek) played awesome and I told him how proud I was of him," Grove said. "I didn't expect anything less he's always been a baller, he just hasn't been out there yet. We're all close in the linebacker room…it doesn't ever feel like a competition. We play as a group and it has been that way since I've been here."

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