Pirates look for defense
By Aaron Beard
GREENVILLE — Ruffin McNeill took over at East Carolina last season hearing questions focused on the installation of a pass-happy spread offense he brought with him from Texas Tech.
A year later, the focus is on whether a defense that couldn’t stop anybody in McNeill’s first year can improve enough so the Pirates don’t waste all those high-scoring offensive performances.
The Pirates switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense in the spring, and began practice Friday with the coaching staff watching to see how much the players have absorbed from that introduction. McNeill and defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell are hoping that switch will be the foundation for improvement after allowing an NCAA-record 572 points.
“I don’t think it’s pressure,” sophomore linebacker Justin Dixon said during Saturday’s preseason media day. “It’s just something we have to go out there and do. We just want to go out there and play great defense.
“If we listen to our coaches, if we get everything down pat and each guy is on the same page, we’re definitely going to get more turnovers, more fumbles, more everything and give our offense a chance to score — because our offense is going to score. All we’ve got to do is give them the opportunity.”
The offense certainly did its part last season, with Dominique Davis throwing for nearly 4,000 yards to lead a unit that scored nearly 37 points per game. The problem was the defense kept giving up that advantage by allowing opposing offenses to just keep piling up yards and points even faster.
East Carolina allowed 44 points and nearly 480 yards per game. Those struggles were more pronounced in the second half of the season, when the Pirates allowed the final six opponents to score at least 42 points — including 76 in an ugly home loss to Navy’s triple-option running attack — and average 54 points.
The Pirates ended the year by allowing 51 points in the Military Bowl loss to Maryland.
Mitchell said the coaches decided to leave the 4-3 formation in place when taking over following the departure of Skip Holtz for South Florida. But they soon determined they didn’t have enough quality pass rushers, then injuries further depleted their already meager depth.
Mitchell said the scheme change should fit the team’s personnel better, including getting more speedy players on the field and creating unpredictability whether the Pirates are going to blitz the passer or drop back into coverage.
“The first thing you do is look at yourself, you look at your personnel and you look at your scheme,” Mitchell said. “When we looked at the personnel, the personnel fit more the 3-4 scheme with all the linebackers we had in the program. You could find a lot of lean young men that fit the profile, so it made more sense to go to the 3-4.”
The results were promising in the spring game, when the defense allowed only two touchdowns — though Davis played only the opening series and went 4-for-4 in a scoring drive.
Still, any improvement will be a welcome sign and could determine whether the Pirates reach a bowl game for the sixth straight year.
“The past is the past,” defensive tackle Michael Brooks said. “There’s really nothing we can do about it now except prepare for the future. We know what happened that (Navy) game. We just plan for it never to happen again.”