Much has changed about East Carolina University’s defense from last year. A unit that ranked toward the bottom of Division I in yards allowed lost its entire starting defensive line during the off-season.

Jalen Price, Alex Turner and Kendall Futrell all graduated while rising senior Chance Purvis was removed from the roster after being placed on a team-issued suspension earlier this year. Other notable subtractions include defensive backs Colby Gore and Daniel Charles who started a combined 22 games in 2019.

Perhaps most importantly, however, was the change made on the coaching staff. Bob Trott was let go in mid-January and his replacement, Blake Harrell, was tabbed as his replacement just two weeks later. Harrell, who has experienced success at every stop, including his one season at Kennesaw State, is back with Mike Houston after serving with him at the Citadel and Lenoir-Rhyne.

Unique for Harrell in this situation is the fact that he is joining ECU’s rebuilding efforts under Houston beginning in year two. Despite not being around to witness the shift in culture during the 2019 season, Harrell has been around Houston long enough to see he is starting to rub-off on the Pirates.

“Year two in a program, especially with coach Houston being year two in a program, his culture is in place now,” Harrell told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game on Thursday. “You can see players buying into the culture, they’re kind of his guys now and kind of taking his shape and taking on his personality. That’s awesome to see. We got to make sure we’re doing the same thing defensively.”

At Kennesaw State, Harrell’s defense allowed the third fewest yards of any FCS program by limiting opponents to just over 278 yards per game. Of course, that was at the FCS level and you will be hard-pressed to find a team on Kennesaw State’s schedule that could stack up to the teams at the top of the American Athletic Conference year in and year out.

Nevertheless Harrell’s track record is hard to ignore, and impressed Houston enough to pull the trigger on hiring him. With a fresh face managing the defense in Greenville will come a willingness to mix some things up on that side of the football. Last year, especially late in the season, it felt like ECU’s defense got itself in a rut and could never find its way out, resulting in big games for opposing offenses. That seems destined to change under Harrell.

“We’re going to be multiple in what we do,” Harrell said. “I say with a multiple 3-4, we’re going to be in an odd front, even front, four-down, three-down and mix some different coverages in there. What I tell our players, it’s not are we 3-4 or are we 4-3 or 4-2-5, whatever it may be, that’s not what identifies us. That’s not our culture. 

“What we want to be is guys that are going to fly around, play hard, run the football and be physical. I hope that’s what fans coming say, ‘man you guys play hard and y’all play physical.’ Those are what we want to describe our defense.”

In all 12 games last year, Futrell, Price, Purvis and Turner played nearly every snap up-front, speaking to the lack of depth present on ECU’s roster. Now with them gone, the Pirates must turn to a more inexperienced but slightly deeper group of players for significant snaps in 2020.

With what figures to be a consistent rotation of players along the defensive line and in the secondary, fresh players will be better suited to mix and match coverages as often as Harrell wants.

“We want to be attacking,” Harrell said. “We talk to our players about attacking-style defense, we’re going to bring pressure, we’re going to have movements, we’re going to run stunts and try to get the offense behind the sticks and in negative situations. They’re on their heels and we’re always the ones on our toes attacking.”

In 2019, the Pirates averaged 5.8 tackles for loss, good enough for 71st in Division I. Kennesaw State, on the other hand, racked up 7.4 per game, ranking them 21st in the FCS ranks.

While last year’s defense presented a wealth of experience but lacked in the depth department, the 2020 version of the Pirates’ defense figures to be filled with young guys. A large focus was placed on the defensive line in recruiting, resulting in a disproportionate amount of defensive signings.

On the transfer market, ECU was equally focused on defense, picking up two defensive backs, a linebacker and defensive end.

Despite the lack of collegiate snaps for many of his players, Harrell said inexperience may actually be a strength for the Pirates in 2020.

“Sometimes you could look at our defense and say we don’t have a lot of experience or this or that,” Harrell said. “Sometimes when you don’t know any better, it just allows you to kind of just go play. You just get out there and go play. I think the fact that we don’t — we have young guys that haven’t played a whole lot and it just allows them to go out there and fly around and do what they do. I think that kind of plays to our strength.”

With a young defensive unit, growing pains are almost certain to pop up throughout the season. How bad those are and how long they last will be tied to how well Harrell can get his players to buy into what he is preaching on that side of the football.

More than anything, he wants his players to have the mindset that as long as they play hard, good things will happen and the results will be there at the end of the day.

“We meet as a whole defense (on Zoom once a week) and I always let one of our young men stand up and give us a thought of the day,” Harrell said. “One of the first ones, one of the guys stood up and said, ‘the man who thinks he can, can, and the man who thinks he can’t, can’t.’ That’s really kind of what we’re trying to establish among our defense. Just build a confidence that we can play hard, we can play faster than anybody else and that’ll give us the advantage.”

Listen to Patrick Johnson’s full interview with Blake Harrell that first aired on 94.3 The Game on Thursday below:

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