ECU ready to fix conference-worst defense

Pirates to unveil new 3-4 system against Gamecocks

Staff WriterAugust 7, 2011 

— Emanuel Davis found the statistics embarrassing.

East Carolina, with its rich football tradition built on defense, finished last season with Conference USA's worst total defense. The Pirates yielded an average of 478.8 yards and 44.0 points per game, their total defense ranking 12th in the conference and 120th in the nation.

Davis, who owned up to his part in the debacle, declared responsibility as a returning senior to restore the Pirates' defensive reputation. He started talking to teammates shortly after East Carolina dropped its final game of the season against Maryland in the Military Bowl on Dec. 29.

He hasn't stopped reminding them.

"I'm definitely putting it in people's ear because I was on some of those teams where we won championships off defense," said Davis, a starting defensive back who took part in the Pirates' back-to-back conference championship seasons in 2008 and 2009.

On Saturday, Davis' teammates and ECU's coaching staff echoed that sentiment during the team's media day. Defensive players were talking about redeeming themselves and coaches were explaining how a new 3-4 defensive formation should help as the Pirates prepare for their season opener against South Carolina on Sept. 3.

The Pirates opened fall camp Friday and now enter coach Ruffin McNeill's second season.

McNeill, a former defensive coordinator, said the move from a 4-3 base system to the 3-4 fit the personality of the team, and the program will exclusively operate from the new formation.

"It fits the personnel we have on campus," McNeill said. "It fits the personnel we're able to recruit here."

The move to the 3-4 is expected to help the Pirates overcome a lack of depth on the defensive line. It also allows them to move athletic players such as sophomore Justin Dixon into space.

McNeill said the 3-4 will allow for aggressive deception among the front. He expects players like Dixon, who returns from a season-ending knee injury, to make an immediate impact.

"I think we're going to shock a couple people," ECU junior defensive tackle Michael Brooks said. "They just saw a glimpse of our talent, especially last year with everyone getting injured. Once we can put it all together in this new scheme, I feel we'll be shocking people."

Players say the 3-4 creates more speed on defense.

"We're definitely going to be faster," Dixon said. "A lot more interceptions. A lot more takeaways. A lot more everything."

McNeill said the team addressed glaring conditioning problems, hiring Jeff Connors as its head strength and conditioning coach. He returns for his second stint at ECU after serving as director of strength and training from 1991-2001.

Connors made his presence known this summer.

"Coach C got us running like dogs out there," Dixon said.

While grumbling about sprints, players said they were eager to test their improved stamina in the fourth quarter. Last year, they huffed and puffed in the second half, wilting in the final quarter.

"We've got an attitude that we're ready to play because we went out bad last year," ECU wideout Lance Lewis said. "So everybody's been ready to put in work. We're coming out fighting, and we're going to keep that same mentality throughout the season. Last year we had a spurt where we dropped off."

The Pirates started the season 5-2, then ended it 1-5.

ECU's spread offense, bolstered by the combination of wide receiver Dwayne Harris and quarterback Dominique Davis, posted points as promised. Harris has parted for the NFL, while Davis returns for his senior season.

New offensive players such as Lewis are expected to keep the chains moving. Others must earn their time in camp.

Asked what about this season will be different, players spoke about a new attitude that has permeated the team.

"The team they saw wasn't really who we are," defensive back Bradley Jacobs said.

"There's a lot of work ahead of us," McNeill said. "Our non-conference schedule will test us, as well as our conference schedule will test us. I'm looking forward to the improvement. Right now, we're not ready to play a game as a team on any side of the football. ... We need to practice."

If teammates don't hustle during camp, Davis will be there to remind them about dropping 76 points to Navy.

"Since it's been like this we've been getting a lot of grief about how we don't stop anybody, how our defense is going to have to score more than anybody else," Davis said. "I think guys on the defensive side are taking it real personal and are ready to get back out there and prove to people we can play good defense."

edward.robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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