[NOTE: This is a bit of a divergence from my normal posts...more of a feature piece today, so forgive the long read here.]
For most of the game against then 17th-ranked Virginia Tech, the East Carolina defense was everything a Pirate fan could dream it to be. We all witnessed a defense that to the eyes looked fast, aggressive, physical, disciplined…fierce by any measure. From bone jarring hits, to precision blitzes, to never miss tackling, to blanket coverage…it was all there, on display. A Pirate defense taking over a game when the offense had stalled.
What we all saw at Virginia Tech earlier this season is the best of what this group of ECU defenders can be…consistently. It has not completely materialized, but the potential is there.
In the middle of this defense, is a tandem of linebackers who are the heart and soul of probably the most athletic and fast collection of defensive players ever fielded for a Pirates campaign. It shows and they all pass the look test, from the defensive line to the secondary.
Junior Zeek Bigger and senior Brandon Williams like to call themselves “Thunder & Lightning,” with the former being the boom and latter the electricity. Their play is akin to their monikers and their impact on the teammates around them is palpable. They are the hub that makes the rest of the wheel turn properly.
As a pair, these two are making a name for themselves since ascending to the starting line-up as a pair in 2013 when both Grove and Kyle Tudor were injured.
“Zeek is definitely the Thunder,” said Williams, the senior Buck linebacker whose speed and uncanny ability to find the football and slice through blockers in a flash of quickness. “I am the Lightning. Zeek is all about physical, power, ripping through guys to get to the ball. I am more about speed, using my hands.”
Their collective skil lsets are the perfect combination for a defense predicated on the premise that the linebackers finish each play. With the defensive linemen aiming at gap control, the backers are expected to finish off the back or receiver running the short routes. And, schematically, the two have delivered. They are no. 1 and no. 2 on the team’s tackle chart, respectively, combining for more than 100 tackles in just 6 games. Bigger, averaging better than 12 tackles a game, sits among the nation’s leaders and Williams, who averages 9 plus tackles per game, is no slouch.
“He’s got that right, I am the Thunder and he is the Lightning,” said Bigger, who is the subject of my latest piece for Bonesville (read here). “I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am physical and he is finesse. We both know our jobs and we both know we succeed because of those guys up front. J.White, Terry Williams, Chrishon (Rose), Fred (Pressley)…those guys, man they do all the work and we get the fun.”
Their coach, Ruffin McNeill may not have their monikers down, but he does know he has a pair of stalwarts inside.
“I think of Zeek and Brandon Williams when I see them, I think of them as them,” said McNeill of his inside tandem. “They are their own entity. Every linebacker is different. Linebacker is a position that they have instinct and you can tell them anything and they still make plays. Each plays the position differently. Zeek is different in his style and how he plays and so is Brandon and Ray Tillman, Joe Carter, Jeremy Grove and Kyle Tudor.
“The ability to make plays separates the really good ones that have played. Then you look at outside and inside. So those guys really feed off each other very well. They have their own distinct style. These guys now really have to be able to play on space and on air.”
McNeill is referring to how the game has evolved and what is demanded of linebackers in this world of pass-happy offenses and perhaps this is where the similarities with past Pirate linebackers ends. What Bigger and Williams do, is they can play the pass and run with equal results.
One former Pirate great and former All-America Robert Jones has taken notice of the linebackers at ECU and loves what he sees.
“I remember the first linebacker I noticed on this team was No. 51 (Montese Overton),” said Jones. “The 2nd person was Zeek. I thought to myself, ‘that 51 can ball.’ I think it always help to have another impact player on the defense whether its a lineman or a defensive back…it helps a guy like Zeek. It just so happens that the two biggest impact players are linebackers on this defense.
“I have always felt like the linebackers on this team are strong. As a group, it looks like Ruffin has assembled a determined group of guys who want to make plays…they all want to be impact players and they all want to win. Ruff has a good group of kids there and good things are happening and will continue to happen for that group.”
Bigger, probably a bit more than Williams, has assumed that leadership position on the defense. It is visible in the way he behaves on the field. He is animated, passionate, and fired up at all times.
“When the coaches were recruiting me, I told them if they would just give me a chance, I would prove to them that it was the right choice, to take a chance one me,” said Bigger. “I have always played, practiced, like it the last time I will ever get to play this game…because, you never know, it could be. So, I push and I push and I think it has always been part of my personality.
“This is fun…I try to be a happy guy out there and when I am with my (teammates) on the field, it’s like being out with your friends at a club having a great time. This is a game that is fun to play and I think the guys see that (how much he loves it) and it gives them energy…gets them excited too. If I am a leader, then that is how I lead.”
Where Bigger has emerged as the larger-than-life face of the D who motivates by way of passion and power, Williams brings a different leadership style – one where he deflects the credit but takes on the role of pushing work ethic and doing things the right way, the first time and every time.
“How the defense does, those moments where we may not be at the level we can be, it is all about focus,” said Williams. “I think we drift sometimes…we let our focus down at times, but we all know that if we do our jobs the way we have been taught and done over and over again, you see that defense (like the Virginia Tech game).
“Our success – Zeek and mine – is all about the guys up front, it really is. They make it all happen, just like we are coached. To be in the right spot, to use the right technique to trust that the other guy is doing his job…that is how this defense plays.”
Both Williams and Bigger recognize that they are a big part of whether or not the defense is clicking on all cylinders. They are cog and the rest are the wheel and without their lead-by-example play, there is the likelihood that the wheels come off. They both take their roles in the middle of the D seriously…no cockiness, just recognition of the way it is.
“Each of us has a job and we each have to do our job exactly as it is supposed to be done,” said Bigger. “You know, Coach (John) Wiley has us practice tackling, reading, reacting, hitting…every day. We have to execute it each time out. We are all well-prepared…it is not just me and Brandon…it is all of us on every play.”
The only difference between the tandem and the others?
“Well, sometimes we do have to let them know what’s what sometimes,” said Bigger.
That ability to take coaching and apply lessons learned from other moments to new and evolving situations could be what makes these two linebackers “special.”
“John Wiley is one of the best coaches around, not just a linebacker coach, but overall,” said McNeill of his linebackers coach.
“Coach Wiley, you know, he really knows what we both do best and put us in position to succeed,” said Bigger. “He’s a great coach.”
McNeill pointed out that one of the hallmarks of a great player is the ability to take the coaching and translate it to on-field action and adjustment. Both Bigger and Williams have demonstrated this ability in spades.
“Our jobs out there are to make tackles, yeah, but also to make sure the defense is doing what the coaches have prepared for us or are asking us to do,” said Williams.
So far, while the defense has had moments where they weren’t quite stellar, they have also risen to the occasion again and again and have this team sitting at a nice 5-1 (2-0 AAC) mark and a lofty No. 18 ranking.
“Can’t wait to get out there again…I just love playing,” said Bigger. “Can’t wait to get back in there at Dowdy-Ficklen.”