This is due in large part to the leadership shown by senior free safety Damon Magazu.
Thus far in his third full season as a starter, Magazu ranks third on the team in tackles (42) and has recorded interceptions in each of the last three games – giving him nine in his collegiate career.
Over the last four years, seemingly every time a big play was needed, it was No. 11 answering the bell. In his first collegiate start as a freshman, Magazu jumped in front of a Russell Wilson pass to seal an overtime win against N.C. State.
Ever since that signature moment, he has only added to his impressive highlight reel.
Whether it was the one-handed interception against Virginia Tech in 2011 that kept the Pirates within striking distance of the Hokies or his fully-extended, game-clinching takeaway at Middle Tennessee State earlier this season, Magazu has risen to the occasion.
"Big-time players make big-time plays at big moments and he is certainly one those guys," said ECU Head Coach Ruffin McNeill.
Clearly, his resume confirms that. But is Magazu's constant tendency to make game-changing plays a product of his instincts or the coaching from Smith and the Pirates coaching staff? Based solely off a small survey of coaches and Magazu, we learned it may be some of both and possibly a little bit of luck.
"When the play is upon you, you just got to make it. If you try to force plays, that's when you get out of position and mess up," said Magazu. "You just got to be in the right place at the right time and I've gotten lucky the last three games."
As you can tell, Magazu brings an element of humility to the team as well and at times, may not give himself as much credit as he likely deserves.
That's not what you get from his defensive coach. Smith is not afraid to speak his mind on what his defense does well or poorly and keeps each of his players accountable as a result of that. But just a few months after he tried lighting a fire under Magazu, Smith has been really pleased with his senior defensive back.
"There are two things you don't want your players to do when you coach them," said Smith. "You don't want to coach players who will only do what you tell them and you don't want to coach players who won't do what you tell them.
"Damon may do something I don't coach because he's instinctive. He might not be exactly where he is supposed to be, but he makes a play."
Following ECU's win against Southern Miss last weekend, McNeill compared Magazu to one of his former players at Texas Tech: current Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker.
Understandably, you might wonder what the connection between the two players might be. McNeill elaborated after Wednesday evening's practice that the comparison goes back to something Welker told him about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady during the receiver's stint with the New England Patriots.
"When Wes came from the Dolphins to New England, the first thing he noticed was Tom Brady," McNeill remembered his receiver complementing Brady, saying, "‘the best players on your teams are the hardest workers, are the most passionate and usually one of your smartest players' and Magazu certainly fits that category."
Interestingly enough, Welker now plays for the same team Magazu's father, Dave, currently serves as the offensive line coach. Often times, Damon is called "C.K." by his coaches and teammates, which stands for "coaches kid." And even though he has played major Division I football for nearly four years, Magazu still asks for advice from his dad.
"After games I get two renditions. I get the father side and the coaching side," he said. "It helps a lot for leadership. He knows what he's looking for in a leader as being a coach (and) teaches me how to do things the right way when being a leader."