While the Defensive Line is looking a little thin and in need of some guys to really step up, the linebacking corps at least has numbers, The losses are considerable at LB, with OLB Maurice Falls and ILB Brandon Williams moving on, vacating 50% of a group of starters that were athletic, fast, and physical. The OLB spot has a large number of rangy athletic guys who will fight for playing time alongside and behind all-league candidate Montese Overton. Inside, however, may be a different story. Bigger is as good a middle linebacker as we have seen in a Pirates uni but who will play next to him? That answer comes with a lot of ifs. Has Devaris Brunson healed up? Is the JUCO ready to play now? Are there any guys who only tasted a little PT this season ready to make the jump? I am more worried in the middle than outside right now.
Fortunately, linebackers coach John Wiley knows what he is looking for at both the ILB and OLB positions, he will find the players. The more pressing question for that group is how good will those guys be? Falls and Williams good?
Back drop: If there is was a list this past season for under-the-radar impact players, on the defense, it would be ILB Brandon Williams. No doubt Zeek Bigger garnered most of the headlines – and rightfully so – but Williams was pretty damn good too, leveraging quick reads, fast wheels, and strong tackling at the point of contact. He was reliable and played bigger than his true stature. Not easily replaceable. Outside, while Maurice Falls was a talent, there are a couple of other guys who have been chomping at the bit who also have some very strong skill sets.
The think about the LB group a year ago was that they were playmakers who had a tendency to make the big play at the right moment. Case in point, it could be argued that Bigger’s pick 6 against North Carolina was a the back-breaker for that game, opening the floodgates to 70. Whether a timely sack, a big INT, or a back-to-back-to-back 3 and outs (ala the bowl game), the linebackers were a strength last season.Spring will tell us a lot about what to expect in the fall of 2015 for the Pirates. There are some guys who may end up being as good or better than the those who have left.
Let’s take a look at the men who might rise to be that guy in 2015-16:
- Montese Overton (RS-SR) – “SAM”: Overton was a highly-recruited talent coming out of high school and possesses an enviable skill set starting with a rare combination of 4.4ish speed in a long-armed, 6-3, 220 pound body. He is a menace coming off the edge and has the wheels to play in coverage against “mismatch” receivers. He is freakish. He is also now very experienced, heading into 2015-16 riding 13 starts under his belt. What is most impressive is that almost 20% of his 118 tackles over the past two seasons have resulted in a loss of yardage. He has 22 TFLs and 9 sacks over two seasons. That knack for play-making should only intensify as he moves from an all-league OLB to a draft-day candidate. The “SAM” position is on lock down with Overton.
- Zeek Bigger (RS-SR) – “MIKE”: Since stepping onto the field
early in 2013 to “fill in” for an injured Jeremy Grove, Bigger has been a stud in the middle of the ECU defense. Once he stepped into the line-up he began piling up both starts and tackles, the latter at a momentous pace. In a good defense, your man in the MIKE position should be your top tackler and last year, Bigger was that man, piling up 140 tackles on the season. Overall, in his 23 starts, he has accumulated 217 stops. He also has contributed a Pick 6 in each campaign so far. Bigger is an all-league performer who is already on NFL radar screens because he has the classic size, speed, and physicality to play the position…and he is football smart. The Pirates are super-solid with the Thunder at the “MIKE” position.
Devaris Brunson (JR) – “BUCK”: When healthy, the sky is the limit for Brunson. Not only is he a team guy, never hesitating to take on whatever role he is asked to take on (played some running back not too long ago), but he is a talent at LB. An injury cut short – way short – what everyone was expecting to be an emerging season for the 6-1, 230 pounder. He started out great, as a reserve, having 4 stops, a forced fumble and a blocked kick in the first 2 games of 2014 and then, like that, an injury took away the balance of the season. There are a couple big ifs for Brunson and the Pirates. First, is he healthy – fully rehabbed and ready; and second, is the guy that was showing so much promise last year?The Pirates need him to be the latter because if fully recovered and at his proper skill level, Brunson could approach the effectiveness – at least from a skills perspective – that Williams delivered last year. Perhaps, lightening will strike twice at “BUCK” for ECU. Thunder would like that for sure.
Dayon Pratt (RS-JR) “WILL”: The 6-4, 230 pounder finished the season as Overton’s primary back-up at the “SAM” spot, so maybe he is destined to play there, but with his range and physicality, you gotta wonder if they don’t give him a shot to play opposite Overton rather than behind him. For now, that is what I am guessing. Pratt showed up big-time on special teams for the Pirates, seemingly in on every tackle. He got down the field quickly and lowered the boom often. He demonstrates that excitability as well, that we have all seen from some of the better backers to come through. Pratt managed 33 tackles last season and has a good shot to see a much-expanded role – possibly even starter – come this season.
FIGHTING TO MAKE SOME NOISE:
Joe Allely (RS-SO): Quietly, the 2013 Pirate Scout-Team-Player-of-the-Year worked his way up to primary back-up role behind Maurice Falls at the “WILL” position. Allely, at 6-1, 239 pounds, was raw during his RS-FR campaign, but was also a gamer for the Pirates. While he doesn’t have the “wow” factor that Falls had, he was efficient as a reserve, stacking up 21 tackles (1 for loss) along with a QBH and a fumble recovery. He made mistakes – like most freshmen do – but his upside is noticeable now. Also notable is that Allely is one of the strongest – by measurables at least – linebackers on the roster. The situation would be ideal if Allely slots in at top reserve at “WILL” again, giving the Pirates experienced depth there.
- Pat Green (SO): During his true frosh campaign, Green (6-2, 218) managed to see playing time in all 13 games, albeit it was predominantly on special teams. Still, he bounced on and off the DC at the “SAM” position in 2014 for a reason…he has a ton of skills. He registered 8 tackles on the season. Green is one of the guys who enrolled early his freshman year and has the drive to make the DC a permanent residence this year. It is hoped that he will continue to develop and maybe grab the top reserve role behind Overton to prepare for the starting job in 2016 and beyond.
- Jeton Beavers (RS-SR): If ever there is a confounding storyline, Beavers’ could be the most confounding. Coming out of high school, he was identified as a bit of a project, but also showed some very good athleticism in a 6-5 263 pound frame. Still, despite seeing action in 12 games a year ago, he didn’t establish himself on the depth chart and only had 2 tackles on the season. In fairness, Beavers’ development has been hampered by injuries throughout, one of which has to be managed. All that said, if Beavers can get it together this spring, it would bode well for the Pirates to have a guy with his size and length (and pretty strong weight room measurables as well) vying for a spot on the OLB DC. Now or never for Jeton.
- Reece Speight (RS-JR): Where Allely sort of surprised everyone taking hold of a DC spot at the “WILL” position, it was Speight (6-3 236) who was expected to be the one to take the top back-up spot last season. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. Still, the physical OLB did manage to see action in 2 games last season, but registered no statistics. A bit of mystery why he didn’t latch on given that he had a solid spring in 2014. He has a great set of skills so perhaps this is the year it all comes together for Speight and he challenges the DC at OLB, likely on the weak side.
- Kirk Donaldson (RS-SO): Among the crop of young guys looking to get noticed, Donaldson (6-3 255) was already noticed. He has drawn so many rave reviews from Head Coach Ruffin McNeill to DC Rick Smith to S&C Coach Jeff Connors. There was a lot of hype about Donaldson but ultimately, a knee injury would see to it that he saw no action last season. I am very eager to see how he does once he is all healed up, because the talk around him was so big. He has some serious size and strength measurables for the position and though slotted as an outside guy, probably could move inside or even down into the trenches if needed.
- Yiannis Bowden (RS-FR): Bowden is probably a year away from factoring into the mix, but at 6-5 215, he is built in the same mold as the guys who have gotten the job done to-date for the Pirates. He will have to continue to add to his frame to bring some additional punch as works towards a role on the field.
- Markel Winters (RS-FR): Listed as a OLB, Winters may be destined to move to DE in the 3-4. He was a highly skilled bull-rusher of a DE in high school and at 6-3 226 he has room to bulk up. With depth an issue at the DE position, that may make real sense going into the spring. Either way, Winters impact is most likely in 2016 and beyond.
Drayvon Fairley (RS-JR): After losing pretty much his entire RS-FR season in 2013 to an injury (he did see action in the bowl game that year), Fairly saw limited action early in 2014, but then pushed hard for PT in the final five games of the season. He is an athletic, though undersized a bit at 217 pounds in the middle, linebacker who will approach this spring as healthy as he has been since arriving on campus. The coaches love his abilities and want him on the field, but he has some distance to go to be considered a high-quality reserve on the inside.
- Joe Carter (SO): The 6-2 220 pounder came to ECU football ready, seeing action in 12 games in 2014 as a true frosh, making 9 tackles. Carter finished the season as a back-up to Bigger at the “MIKE” position. Coaches love his consistency and ability to read and react well. He is a downhill hitter who is just scratching the surface of his abilities and is a textbook ILB. He should show a huge step forward in the spring and help sure up quality behind Bigger in 2015 as he preps for his own run at the starting job in 2016.
Ray Tillman (SO): Like Carter at the “MIKE” position, Tillman saw action right away at the “BUCK” position finishing the season as Brandon Williams primary back-up as a true freshman. Tillman’s early entry to the line-up was more product of injuries last year than being too good to not play, but nevertheless, he gained valuable experience.Tillman is not a traditional looking ILB – at least not yet – weighing in at under 200 pounds, but he is still a fast-moving hitter. No doubt the objective at Camp Connors will be to pack on muscle mass for Tillman. He managed 9 tackles in the 8 games he played in a year ago, most coming on special teams.
- Cameron White (JR): Above all, White is a smart and instinct-savvy player. A walk-on, he managed to not only impress enough to be given a shot at a DC slot, but then stepped into the fray to stick on the DC behind Bigger at the “MIKE” position, essentially sharing the back-up role with Carter. He had 7 tackles, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble last season. White is scrappy and as such, shouldn’t be counted out of making another run at a DC spot this year. He has had a taste of it now and that is sometimes enough for an overachiever, particularly when they are a Pirate with a chip. Either way, White is also a standout on Special Teams so he will have his PT in 2015.
- Tony Baird (FR): Baird originally signed in 2014 but was not able to join his class as he spent a year working to gain eligibility. He enrolled in January, fulfilling his promise that he was going to get here one way or another. Now solidly on the roster, the 6-3, 210 pounder can get to the business of fighting for a DC slot. He possesses a ton of skills, but needs the impact of the Coach Connors program. Baird will be a good one down the road for the Pirates.
- Darius Wright (TR-JR): JUCO players should always be recruited to a school with the expectation that they will win a a job and for ECU, how ready Wright is could have major implications on the unit’s success. If Wright, who piled up 132 tackles along with 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and yes, even 3 INTs at Hutchinson CC, can step into the “BUCK” position or if he can solidly lockdown top reserve role at one of the ILB positions, the PIrates go from thin to thick quickly. His highlights show a fast-to-the-ball player who reads the flow of the offense extremely well and he has a great nose for the ball (and good hands too, obviously). One other notable, his father Frank was a 3 year letterman at South Carolina. Our last guy whose dad played at USC has worked out pretty nicely (Ike Harris), so maybe Coach Ruff and crew can keep its JUCO streak high-impact streak alive and well with Wright.
Early Call: Having Overton and Bigger back already puts us on solid ground…you can fill in around that pair and do pretty darn well. I am hoping that Wright comes in kickin’ so that should Brunson not be ready, we have a guy who can line-up next to Bigger and help lock-down the middle while the young guys like Brunson, Carter, Tillman, etc., emerge. Outside, whether Pratt ends up starting or not, the kid has shown some talent and will see a ton of reps. It’s the depth that concerns me. We have a lot of high-potential guys, but there is that word again…potential. Not a whole lot of proven depth there. However, I am eager to see how some of these guys like Green, Donaldson, et al, show now that they have everything to gain by going for it.
NEXT POST: When the Pirates lost Adonis Armstrong and Chip Thompson left two years ago, everyone was saying that our defensive secondary was toast. Yet, guys stepped in and the defense didn’t do too badly. So now with the departures of Lamar Ivey and Detric Allen, is the sky falling? Or can the Pirates step forward again? Looking at our DC’s specialty, the Defensive Backs in the next way-too-early post.