For all the excitement that the Pirates quarterback battle has generated in fall camp, it seems that the whole drama really is only a subplot – a minor story, really – in an emerging ECU football narrative that is headlined by the Defense. Questions about the who, the what, the how healthy, how improved are they….these are the stuff that at the end of the day, will dictate whether the Pirates turn the corner and get back into the discussion of CUSA titles and bowl games again.
While it is no doubt critical who the QB is and how he does in his first stint as starter, the offense – for all of its high flying – needs to be the type that can find a way to stay on the field a little longer, take advantage of a short field, and not make mistakes – dare I say even, be a little conservative. As that battle sorts out – and thanks to our good friends at Hoist the Colours, we are learning what we all expected: the QB battle comes down to Rio Johnson and Shane Carden – attention now turns to game preparation for Appalachian State, which is now just 10 days away.
It will be the defense, IMO, that determines what the record looks like at the end of the day for ECU. There has been much hype about the defense and for the most part, for good reasons. On paper, the team appears poised to really jump from a middle-of the pack unit to an elite unit.
Starting with a host of returners on the unit, one of the biggest system advantages that ECU Defensive Coordinator Brian Mitchell has is that his biggest, best, most experienced, and most football savvy players on his unit, stack up nicely down the middle…like a spine…providing stability, support, and strength to the defensive flanks.
Our friend Stephen Igoe penned a fantastic piece about this very point in this year’s edition of Bonesville Magazine – which I hope each of you at this point have received in the mail. In it, he discusses the benefit of having three of the D’s top players and leader – Michael Brooks, Jeremy Grove, and Damon Magazu – truly lining up in the heart of each unit within the defense.
All three of these players are pre-season all-league picks, are all experienced, and all considered among the best in CUSA – and perhaps beyond – at their positions. To think that these guys will lead a unit that can essentially shut down opponents from attacking the middle is scary.
On top of the “spine,” one thing that Mitchell – and Coach Ruff – have done is ensured that the primary physical attribute for the defense is “speed.” All things equal – the faster guy is going to be on the field. This makes too much sense. If our flanks are likely to be attacked, then speed will mitigate any weaknesses that may exist. And with options at end like Justin Dixon and John Lattimore – when we need speed and at OLB like Derrell Johnson and Montese Overton, you have a group that can close on a play quickly.
Their attitude is exactly right. And it appears we have the talent. But there are questions still that stand in the way of this Defense being able to deliver on a much needed rise to prime time.
First, are the injuries to Brooks and Leonard Paulk – to projected key starters – really just nicks/bruises and not more serious? Is Terry Williams a scratch for the season? Can Matt Milner get in game ready form in two weeks? Are we set at OLB opposite Derrell Johnson? Do we have a capable strong safety?
Second, is this defense ready from the jump? The D does not have the luxury to take four to five weeks to be at full speed. Not with the schedule. And OOC games matter – regardless of any notions to the contrary.
Third, can all the practice in the world translate into a unit that can make game-changing plays? They simply didn’t do enough of that last year…not enough turnovers generated, not enough sacks and QB hurries, not enough 3rd down stops.
And finally, and this is out of their control…will the O be decent enough to allow the Defense to carry the team…can our program handle becoming a defense first type of team.
I am so excited to watch this defense this year.
What say you my friends?