The ageless good news/bad news joke fits East Carolina football. The good news: seven defensive starters return. The bad news: the defense finished dead last in the nation in both yards and points allowed.
East Carolina gave up 541.7 yards and 45.1 points a game to rank 129th out of 129 Division I schools. In the season finale of a second straight 3-9 year, Memphis rolled up a 70-13 embarrassment. Three other teams scored 60-plus (Virginia Tech, USF and UCF) and two more 50-plus (West Virginia and Houston).
That allowed for some gallows humor from new defensive coordinator David Blackwell, a former ECU player and assistant coach in the early 1990s.
“It’s easier to take over a defense that was last in the nation than first,” he said. “What’s the worst that can happen this way? We’ll be last in the country. There is no way to go but up.”
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But Blackwell knows last in the nation is unacceptable. And it wasn’t part of his past four years as Jacksonville State’s defensive coordinator; his units ranked in the top 10 and better in most categories among Football Championship Subdivision schools. The 2017 Gamecocks were third in total defense (239.6) and eighth in scoring (15.0).
Blackwell’s homecoming task is to restore order. A year ago, defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson was demoted after two games to a non-coaching staff position. Defensive line coach Robert Prunty took over, but he was let go at the end of the season. So was linebackers coach Ryan Anderson.
When Blackwell studied 2017 video he wasn’t discouraged with the talent he inherited.
“Sometimes what looks like a lack of effort is really a confused player,” he said. “Confused players don’t play fast.”
When spring drills opened, he focused on teaching roles in the same basic 4-2-5 scheme.
“Confidence comes with knowledge,” Blackwell said. “The first thing they’ve got to understand is what we’re asking. When they spew out things I’m telling them word for word, then we know we’re on the right page.
“Whether you’re a defensive lineman, linebacker or defensive back, you’ve got to know your position and what the other guys are doing. The biggest problem they had last year is the guys didn’t believe in what they were doing.”
East Carolina returned seven defensive starters, but only three opened fall camp listed No. 1 on the depth chart: defensive end Kendall Futrell, nose tackle Alex Turner and cornerback Colby Gore. All three are true juniors.
Three are backups: Defensive tackle Jalen Price is behind Turner; nickel back Devon Sutton behind redshirt junior Tim Irvin, an Auburn transfer; and linebacker Cannon Gibbs behind true sophomore Bruce Bivens.
Redshirt sophomore Keyshawn Canady, a starting cornerback last year, has been moved to running back.
Blackwell, who also coaches linebackers, is one of three new defensive aides. Rodrigue Wright, who was at Sam Houston State, coaches the defensive line and Daric Riley, SMU, the safeties.
Brandon Lynch, who has shfted from all defensive backs to cornerbacks, is the only returning defensive coach.
Third-year Pirates head coach Scottie Montgomery sounded optimistic. One reason is he spends less time supervising the defense.
“The highest level of confidence you can have in a coach is you don’t have to worry about what’s going on,” said Montgomery, a former Duke offensive coordinator. “When we talk defense, it’s not what I expect, it’s what I know he will get it done.”