CFN: East Carolina Defensive Preview

If the Pirate defensive line doesn't outright dominate at times this season, heads will roll at the end of the year. There's way too much talent and depth on this unit for it not to make a quantum leap from 2006.

What you need to know: If the Pirate defensive line doesn’t outright dominate at times this season, heads will roll at the end of the year.  There’s way too much talent and depth on this unit for it not to make a quantum leap from 2006.  Junior end Marcus Hands, in particular, has the size and quickness to be special after underachieving last fall.  Penetration up front figures to help a secondary that’s easily the weak link of this defense.  Three starters, including both corners, need to be replaced from a group that was one of the underrated team strengths for the past two seasons.    

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Quentin Cotton, 68
Sacks: C.J. Wilson, 4
Interceptions: Travis Wilson, 2

Star of the defense: Junior DE Marcus Hands
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Leon Best or Jerek Hewett
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DT Khalif Mitchell
Best pro prospect: Hands
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Junior LB Quentin Cotton 2) Hands 3) Sophomore FS Van Eskridge
Strength of the defense: The front seven
Weakness of the defense: The secondary

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The depth, size, talent and experience are in place for this to be one of the best defensive lines in school history.  An incredible eight linemen that started games in 2006 are back to go along with North Carolina transfer Khalif Mitchell, who has immediately displaced one of those regulars in the lineup.  The 6-6, 320-pound junior is a two-gap tackle with next level potential that’ll plug a hole in an interior that got progressively better after the Navy opener.  Quick enough to play some end in Chapel Hill, he has a star’s upside if he’s dedicated on and away from the field. 

Next to Mitchell at the nose will be senior Mark Robinson, the only lineman to start all 13 games at the same position in 2006.  A consistent stopper in run defense, he led the linemen with 47 tackles last season, but needs to make more plays for negative yards in 2007. 

Although the starting ends will be juniors Marcus Hands and Zach Slate, you can expect plenty of rotation here throughout the season.  If the line is going to be as dominant as advertised, Hands has to regain the form that made him one of the top freshman pass-rushers of 2005. 

While his big-play production plummeted despite playing in five more games, he’s too big and too quick to underachieve a second straight year.  At 6-5 and 227 pounds, Slate is a smaller and faster option on the other side.  With so much attention being given to the other linemen, his job will be to apply quarterback pressure off the edge.  

Projected Top Reserves: Somehow, someway sophomore end C.J. Wilson is going to get plenty of reps.  He was disruptive as a true freshman, leading the team with four sacks, before becoming downright unblockable throughout the spring.  Much more than just a situational insertion, he’s an every down player who can also defend the run at 6-4 and 265 pounds. 

Sophomore Scotty Robinson started half the games of his first season, collecting 23 tackles, four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.  Still developing as an end, he can really help the defense by turning his quickness and athleticism into more pressure this fall. 

Senior Wendell Chavis, sophomore Jay Ross and junior Brandon Setzer combined to start 12 of 13 games at tackle last year.  This year, they’ll be teaming up to fortify the second team behind Robinson and Mitchell.  Chavis is not the biggest or prettiest player, but he just seems to get the job done, hustling his way to 39 tackles, seven tackles for loss and a pair of sacks as a junior.  Setzer is a 6-6, 305-pounder who’ll back up Robinson at the nose after spending time on the offensive line during the off-season.  Now that he’s settled down on defense, he’ll be looking to approach his 2005 form when he had 28 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss as a freshman.  Ross is a 315-pound space-eater who started two games as a rookie and offers upside in run defense. 

Watch Out For… lots of batted balls at the line of scrimmage.  Not only is this an extremely tall front wall that averages about 6-5, but the depth of the unit ensures that those legs will still have bounce late in the second half.
Strength: Depth and experience.  It’s extremely rare for a Conference USA team to truly go two-deep on either the offensive or defensive line.  ECU achieves this with a glut of veteran talent on the inside and outside.
Weakness: Pressure.  For as much talent that the Pirates have at this position, it sure didn’t equal sacks in 2006.  East Carolina was dead last in Conference USA in the category and struggled mightily at containing opposing quarterbacks.  The success of the entire defense hinges on the line’s ability to reverse that trend.
Outlook: All the planets have aligned for this to be a nasty front that continues the run-stuffing momentum from the second half of last year.  The key, however, will be how well it pressures the quarterback, especially since the secondary is a major work-in-progress.
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: Every two-deep linebacker is back from a group that constituted three of the Pirates’ top four tacklers in 2006.  The biggest surprise of the unit was junior Quentin Cotton who unexpectedly went from special team junky to a very productive player on the outside.  A solid all-around athlete at 6-2 and 224 pounds, he parlayed 68 tackles and a team-best eight tackles for loss. 

On the opposite side is junior Pierre Bell, a 238-pound hitter that finished third last year with 66 stops.  Originally signed as a running back, he’s been injury prone throughout his ECU career. 

Manning the middle will be senior Fred Wilson, an instant hit in his first year removed from Georgia Military College.  A strong, instinctive linebacker at 250 pounds, he has all-league potential after debuting with 39 solo tackles, which were good for second on the team.
Projected Top Reserves: Wilson’s understudy will be sophomore Nick Johnson who’ll learn as a backup this year before taking over at middle linebacker in 2008.  Thrown into the mix as a true freshman, he impressed the staff with 27 tackles and three tackles for loss in ten games. 

The staff would like to unleash sophomore Jeremy Chambliss, one of the team’s fastest defensive players, after watching him mostly play on special teams in 2006.  Built like a safety at 6-0 and 222 pounds, he has good lateral quickness and is a natural rushing the passer.

Watch Out For… even less blitzing from the linebackers than last year.  When John Thompson was in Greenville, ECU was disorganized and too vulnerable when it blitzed from every angle.  Greg Hudson prefers a more conservative approach which he can employ now that the defensive line is ready to contribute to the pass rush.
Strength: Continuity.  The Pirates return three starters, all of whom were full-timers for the first time at this level in 2006.  With that critical season of experience behind them, Cotton, Bell and Wilson will be even more dependable this fall.
Weakness: Penetration.  Cotton aside, the ECU linebackers made too few plays behind the line of scrimmage last year.  No, they won’t have the luxury of blitzing much, but more penetration from the front seven doesn’t just apply to the defensive line.
Outlook: Although it won’t make a ton of spectacular plays, this is a steady group of starting linebackers that will each gobble up more than 60 tackles while helping ECU crack the top half of Conference USA run defenses.
Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: One of the league’s best pass defenses, two years running, is in the midst of a major overhaul in 2007.  Three starters have departed, leaving a collection of parts that the staff will try to assemble into something positive before September.  To help matters, sophomore Van Eskridge has moved from outside linebacker to free safety where his 6-0, 206-pound frame is better suited.  Tough enough to bag 60 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss as a freshman linebacker, he’ll be an enforcer in the secondary for the Pirates this season. 

At strong safety will be sophomore Chris Mattocks, a very physical 206-pound defender that lettered last season with nine games on special teams. 

The fate of the pass defense will depend heavily on how well the cornerbacks, juniors Leon Best and Jerek Hewett, adjust to being full-time starters.  While Best has good size and was in the lineup for two games in 2006, Hewett is being asked to make the jump from a part-time special teamer to one of the most important players on the defense.  Conference USA is loaded with quality receivers, all of whom will be looking to expose this pair of green defensive backs.

Projected Top Reserves
: If Best or Hewett stumble, Skip Holtz won’t hesitate to summons senior Travis Williams from the sidelines.  He’ll get burned from time to time, but also chipped in 55 tackles a year ago and led the Pirates with eight passes broken up. 

ECU loves the potential of 6-3, 215-pound free safety Melvin Patterson.  A sensational all-around athlete that can bring the payload, the redshirt freshman be knocking on the first unit door as soon as he completely digests the defensive system.  Patterson is one of the few reasons to get excited about the Pirate defensive backfield.        

Watch Out For… Patterson to be in the lineup before Halloween.  Physically and intellectually, he’s the total package in a secondary that’s pining for consistent playmakers.
Strength: Eskridge.  He’ll be bringing a linebacker’s mentality to an East Carolina secondary that presently lacks an identity.  Receivers may be able to beat the Pirates over the top, but they better know where No. 37 is when crossing over the middle.
Weakness: The corners.  The new cornerbacks are going to be very susceptible from the opening kickoff of the season.  Best is a former walk-on, Hewett has no experience and Williams hasn’t been able to hold the job when he’s had it.
Outlook: This is a wart, and the staff knows it.  In a best case scenario, the evolving pass rush helps mask a secondary that’s young and very much unproven in pass coverage.
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The Pirates will be breaking in a new punter and placekicker on a special teams unit that was no better than average last year.  Losing the services of punter Ryan Dougherty really hurts after he averaged 43.6 yards and consistently pinned opponents deep with his kicks.  Taking his place will either be redshirt freshman Nathan Przestrzelski or sophomore Matt Dodge.  The 6-5, 175-pound Przestrzelski is a walk-on who can also kick field goals in a pinch.  He hardly distinguished himself in the spring, making Dodge the favorite to be taking snaps in September.  Dodge is a transfer from Appalachian State where he averaged 40 yards per on a team that won the I-AA National Championship.  He’s got big game experience which is a distinct advantage over Przestrzelski. 

After playing sparingly in four games and making 3-of-5 kicks last year, sophomore Ben Hartman is poised to take over the placekicking job full-time in 2007.  The former walk-on shined in April, showing good accuracy and improved leg strength. 

The Pirates can use a few more big plays from their return game this fall.  Senior kickoff returner Chris Johnson has steadily gotten better since his freshman year, averaging 23 yards and taking a kick back 96 yards for a score versus Southern Miss in an all-conference season.  The job of fielding punts will be handled by either junior Travis Williams, redshirt freshman Dwayne Harris or senior Steven Rogers.  Williams showed the most pop last year, averaging 11.8 yards on five returns.                                                          

Projected Top Reserves: The loser of the battle between Przestrzelski and Dodge will be a punting insurance policy in case the other guy flops.  Hartman will be backed up by Murphy Paderick, a lightly recruited walk-on who redshirted in 2006.                    

Watch Out For… Hartman’s continued development as the placekicker.  He looked good in April which is a sigh of relief for a program that scores sporadically and typically plays in a lot of games decided by less than a touchdown.
Strength: Johnson.  Arguably the most dangerous return man in Conference USA, Johnson has the jets and the moves to ignite a feeble East Carolina offense that was ninth in the league and 79th nationally in scoring last year.
Weakness: Punting.  The drop-off from Dougherty will be noticeable after neither of the inexperienced replacements built any separation during the off-season.
Outlook: The punters will struggle, however, the real barometer of special teams success in 2007 will be Hartman who has to be a consistent weapon for a Pirate offense that too often stalls in the red zone.
Rating: 4.5


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