GREENVILLE — Losing two starting middle linebackers before the biggest game on your schedule up to date can tend to put a coach on edge, but not Rick Smith. East Carolina’s first-year defensive coordinator was as cool as Chris Moneymaker with a pocket pair as he fielded questions revolving around the loss of Jeremy Grove and Kyle Tudor before the Pirates (2-0, C-USA) noon showdown with Virginia Tech (1-1, ACC) Saturday.
It’s possible that after 30-plus years of coaching at the college level that Smith has mastered his poker face when it comes time to meet the press.
However, the more likely scenario is that Smith believes that when Brandon Williams and Zeek Bigger step on the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium grass for the first time as starters they will be ready.
“I just feel like Zeek and Brandon are going to play great,” Smith said. “They’ve been in games before and they’ve performed well in the games they’ve been in.”
Bigger, a 6-2, 228-pound sophomore special teams ace from Gastonia, is charged with filling the shoes of Grove, a former Conference USA Freshman of the Year who has started the past three seasons at the “Mike” linebacker position, while Williams, a 6-1, 240-pound junior will take the place of Tudor, a senior starter at “Buck” linebacker.
Both Grove (chest) and Tudor (shoulder) were injured during the Pirates 31-13 win over Florida Atlantic University last Saturday, which offered their understudies a chance for a dress rehearsal before having to start against the Hokies.
The duo shined in the spotlight as each racked up a game-high nine tackles, while Williams recovered a fumble and Bigger recorded a sack.
“That helped build my confidence up. In my first series I had some big hits,” Williams said. “So I’m looking forward to Saturday.”
Bigger, Williams’ roommate and close friend, felt the same way.
“It was pretty good to get my feet wet so I can know what I’m coming in to,” Bigger said. “I won’t be surprised.”
With loss of the veterans Grove and Tudor the Pirates no doubt will sustain a drop off in experience at key spots in the defense, but with Williams and Bigger patrolling the middle they will gain in speed and athleticism.
“We’re going to miss the leadership from Kyle and Jeremy, those two are great players,” Smith said. “But believe it or not I’m sleeping good. I think (Williams and Bigger) are going to play lights out. … I’m not trying to say anything derogatory about Jeremy, but Zeek’s probably a better athlete. He runs faster, he’s a little bit taller, but he just hasn’t played as much.
“Brandon is faster than Kyle. So athletically we have a little bit more speed on the field, but we just don’t have as much experience. … I’ve heard (linebackers) Coach (John) Wiley tell Kyle sometimes to pick it up or Brandon’s going to beat you out. It was a pretty tight race the whole fall and the same thing with Zeek, so it’s not like they’re truly second-team guys.”
When asked if it’s possible that Williams and Bigger could win starting jobs with good playing during Grove and Tudor’s absence Smith said, “Yes.”
As for the key to the duo having a successful debut, Smith said that all they have to do is, “Do what the (heck) we call and tackle those guys.”