The philosophy for East Carolina defensive coordinator Rick Smith is stop the run first. The No. 19 Pirates rank 17th in the nation for rush defense by only allowing an average of 3.35 yards per carry.
This weekend, ECU (4-1, 1-0 American Athletic Conference) will be tasked with stopping South Florida’s (2-3, 1-0 AAC) run game. The Bulls have their own superstar wearing No. 5 in freshman running back Marlon Mack. He leads the conference with 536 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
Stopping Mack and the Bulls on the ground starts up front with the defensive line and the linebacker corps. Senior nose tackle Terry Williams is an important key to fending off USF’s ground offense.
“You’ve just got to have that motor,” said Williams after Wednesday’s practice. “Whether you’re a defensive lineman, linebacker or defensive back, you’ve got to have that motor on defense. You want to get to the ball.”
That’s something the front seven is looking forward to. USF tends to run the ball right into the defensive line, so Williams and company will have an interesting showdown with Mack come Saturday.
“The front seven is pretty excited about this game knowing they run the ball a lot,” said Williams. “We’ve been working hard in practice—working on the run game and all the formations they do.”
Williams is looked upon as a leader on defense. His veteran status will be as important as his six-foot-three, 353-pound frame when it comes to defending the rush, as well as combating USF’s offense in general.
“Terry is a veteran guy. He’s been here since we started this defense,” said defensive line coach Marc Yellock. “He knows the ins and outs of it…It’s really good to have him back. He’s a strong kid and a kid that can really do a good job against the run and the pass. That’s a misconception, too. He can also pass rush a little bit.”
Williams missed ECU’s first two games of the season due to injury. Upon his return versus Virginia Tech in Week 3, he proved he brings much more to the table than just added depth.
When it comes to Mack specifically, the focus is not to stop him. Rather, the Pirates are aware that they’ll only slow him down.
“You just hope that you can contain him,” said Yellock. “I don’t know if you can go out there and say ‘We’re going to stop him.’ We’re just going to try and contain him and don’t allow him to get any (yards after contact) and go from there with it.”
The defensive coaching staff has spent plenty of time studying what it is that makes Mack and USF’s rushing so effective.
“What he does with those tight ends is he constantly moves the tight ends around,” said Smith. “And the backs…He’ll shift to one back, he’ll shift to empty…all that motion and all those shifts are to get you confused to where you don’t have enough people in there to start the run.”
The Pirates were in Raleigh last time they were faced an offense that shifted around so much. North Carolina State operated in a similar way, but ECU left with a 42-28 victory over the Wolfpack.
“This offense is similar to N.C. State last year. There’s a lot of two tight ends, a lot of balance, a lot of shifting. That’s the only team that we’ve faced that does as much shifting as these guys. We were worried going into that game, too.”
On top of that, the defensive coaching staff has experience coaching against USF head coach Willie Taggart. While serving as an assistant head coach at South Florida, Smith squared off against a Taggart-coached Western Kentucky.
USF’s affinity for running will make for an interesting matchup for ECU’s first road game in the American. Kickoff is set for Saturday at 7 p.m. in Raymond James Stadium.