East Carolina has four games under its belt and now prepares for its American Athletic Conference debut. With the Southern Methodist Mustangs on the horizon, ECU’s front seven has been the story to watch on defense.
“It was a defense geared towards what they were able to recruit, which is linebackers,” said McNeill of what SMU has done with its front seven in the past few years. “(SMU is) really good up front. The two teams that made the (conference) championship were Central Florida and SMU and they both had the best front sevens in the league.”
McNeill knew that was the key to making an impact and possibly claiming a conference championship. Watching UCF and SMU last season solidified that belief. McNeill and company implementing a 3-4 defense proved to be a turning point.
One thing to note is that it never changed the way ECU recruited on defense. The Pirates simply took the pieces they had and implemented them into the new system.
“We knew that’s what we had,” said McNeill. “We’ve been able to get those linebacker types here. So, even before then, we knew that…But, because of the 4-3, you need to get more defensive linemen.”
ECU had that, too. The Pirates that make up the defensive line are players that McNeill knows can play on space. Part of that can be attributed to the decline of the middle linebacker position. Because of that, you have linebackers like Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams that are now tasked with making plays on receivers.
Bigger has embraced that duty, too. He has 54 tackles (22 solo) on the season thus far, but the team has also used him as a threat to make interceptions.
At the beginning of the second half versus North Carolina, fellow linebacker Brandon Williams pressured with a blitz. Bigger read the under route and jumped the receiver’s route, knowing there was no one else to pass to. He picked off the pass and returned it for a touchdown.
“Our main thing is the 3-4 and it’s been working very special for us,” said Bigger. “It allows us to use our ability and our speed and make plays and do things that we’re trying to do. With Montese (Overton) being on the outside and Maurice (Falls) also giving us enough pressure on quarterbacks on the outside, it’s working very well right now.”
The plays the linebackers start with the defensive line. Led by Terry Williams at nose tackle, the unit has been a key to the way the entire defense has played.
“These pieces are great,” said Bigger. “Our defensive line is monstrous. Like I say, I give all the credit to those boys…Every last one of them is a big key to this defense. Without them, we couldn’t make plays and we couldn’t make tackles. They have to work off the offensive line and they have to get holes open for us to come down and make plays.”
Then it’s up to the linebackers to help out and make those plays. That corps’ stellar performance is a contributing factor to the way the secondary has played, despite being the defense’s biggest preseason question mark.
“Us, as linebackers, have got to help the cornerbacks,” said Bigger. “We’ve got to put pressure on them so they can get interceptions, make turnovers and things like that—not let the quarterback run around so much.”
That could be a concern against SMU. Matt Davis—a Texas A&M transfer quarterback—is, according to ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith, one of the team’s best athletes. Smith finds it possible that the Mustangs will have him run some speed options, but it shouldn’t be too much for the front seven to handle.