Secondary Takes Shape
Defensive coordinator Rick Smith inherited a defense that was ranked 87th nationally in 2012 and 107th against the pass when he returned for his second tour of duty at East Carolina last January. With a pair of new starting cornerbacks and a sturdy front-7, Smith helped the Pirates make one of the greatest improvements in the country. ECU closed the 2013 season 37th in total defense. This season presents a similar challenge. The Pirates must replace three starters in the secondary and are in the process of introducing several new faces in fall camp. The unit’s one apparent staple is Detric Allen, who took over at field cornerback midway through last season and excelled. Allen got his chance when Josh Hawkins went down with a head injury against Virginia Tech and the rising-senior cornerback did not look back from that point on. Hawkins acknowledged Thursday that he knew the infamous story of Wally Pipp — Pipp was a New York Yankees first baseman that sat out with a headache and never returned to the lineup because of a backup named Lou Gehrig — but said losing his starting position to Allen did not affect him much. “All of us (defensive backs) are brothers to each other and we all treat each other like we’re family. It’s all competition when we get out here, but when we hit the locker room it’s all love.” Now a junior, Hawkins is making the transition to boundary cornerback, but has hit some obstacles along the way. “Josh is the starter, but he was in the doghouse for academic reasons. Today, he’s out of the doghouse. So he’ll stay at field (cornerback),” Smith said following the Pirates’ practice at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex. “I’m an older guy now. I’ve got to understand I’m not a freshman anymore,” Hawkins said. “I made some freshman mistakes off the field … and (Smith) just wants me to act like an older guy because the young guys look up to me.” Finding qualified replacements for safeties Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson seemed to be Smith’s largest concern entering the 2014 season. However, following impressive spring sessions by sophomore Terrell Richardson and junior Domonique Lennon, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. But how confident is Head Coach Ruffin McNeill with his potentially two starting safeties that have combined to appear in 19 games with no starts at the collegiate level? “I’m comfortable with Rick Smith. That’s where it starts,” said McNeill. “Rick Smith is not only one of the best coaches, but one of the best teachers in the country I’ve been around. He will develop them. “That’s what practice is for. I feel good about all areas of our team because of our coaches and in the secondary because of our kids and how they compete.” In the spring, Lennon was originally listed as the first-team strong safety, but was later moved to the other side of the field at free safety to make way for Richardson. Meanwhile, senior Lamar Ivey seems to have fallen out a favor in Smith’s defense. He was nearly the starting strong safety two years ago before Thompson arrived as a JUCO transfer. Then, once again this spring, Ivey was listed as the first-team strong safety, but was outplayed by Richardson. A more recent development is the emergence of walk-on defensive back Bobby Fulp. Smith told Inside ECU Sports the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Midlothian, Va. native was competing for the backup strong safety spot with true freshman Cody Purdie. Ivey was not mentioned, which might indicate he has been delegated back to cornerback or to be used in specific nickel packages. Now that Smith has a good idea who his starters will be in the secondary against North Carolina Central Aug 30, the focus has shifted to developing quality depth. “The biggest question is depth. Second-team free safety is a big question,” Smith said. “I know who the best four corners are, it’s just a matter of where they wind up.” There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Pirates’ secondary and there will be plenty of newcomers cycled this season. It is surprising that despite lacking starting experience, this group of defensive backs is convinced that they will not accept regression after losing three starters. In fact, they expect to be better. “It’s just a lot more speed in the secondary,” Hawkins said. “Everyone runs like 4.40 (second) 40’s. So this secondary can honestly be something big this year.”
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