ECU has some retooling to do in its secondary after losing three starters following the 2019 season and over the off-season. Safety Daniel Charles and cornerback Colby Gore are no longer on the roster, while outside linebacker Gerard Stringer is set to miss most, if not all, of the 2020 campaign after suffering an ankle injury earlier this year.
Much like along the defensive line, that will force the Pirates to lean on some new faces in their program, including one high-end transfer from Alabama.
Nigel Knott was a highly recruited prospect out of Mississippi a handful of years ago, and turned down offers from Ole Miss and Mississippi State to attend Alabama. Now a graduate student with two years of eligibility remaining, Knott has only appeared in 12 collegiate games after missing the entirety of the 2019 season with an injury.
Cleared medically before his transfer to ECU, Knott figures to be in the running for Gore’s vacated cornerback position opposite Ja’Quan McMillian if he can fight the injury bug that has plagued him so much.
“He had several positive days to start camp,” head coach Mike Houston said after practice on Monday. “Today, he tweaked his hamstring a little bit, so wasn’t able to go this afternoon. So we’ll see how long that holds him out, hopeful not very long. He’s a talented young man, but the thing that bit him there was being able to stay on the field. That’s going to be something here that he’s going to have to get through, going to have to get over that. If you’re not on the field, you’re not much of an impact. Hopefully it’ll be a day or so and he’ll be back.”
Elsewhere in the defensive backfield, the Pirates have options galore. Davondre Robinson is back after starting all 12 games last year at the free safety position, while Warren Saba and Juan Powell figure to be in somewhat for a battle for playing time somewhere in the secondary.
Of that duo, Saba has the experience advantage with 23 games under his belt as a Pirate in two years. Prior to preseason camp, Saba made the jump back to the secondary from more of an outside linebacker role, but it is pretty obvious that he can play all five positions in the secondary, if needed.
Powell, who has played in just four games for ECU after redshirting last year as a freshman, looked really good in that limited action. Playing mostly from a safety position late in the season, Powell racked up 18 tackles in that time span. During preseason practice, Powell has rode that late-season wave and turned in some impressive practices in the mind of his head coach.
“He has the ability to play any of the five positions,” Houston said. “Right now we’ve got him at the field safety. He had his best practice yesterday (Sunday) that I’ve seen out of him since he’s been here. Made some really impressive plays and forced a couple of turnovers. He’s looking more and more comfortable at that position.”
Like at most other positions around the defense, ECU is stacking plenty of depth in preparation for a season that will be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With regular testing during the season, it will only benefit schools to have as many players as possible ready to take the field. Even if that depth ends up not being needed, it makes for a competitive atmosphere in practice situations.
“We’ve got some pretty healthy competition there (at safety), too with Warren Saba as the experienced guy in the room,” Houston said. “Robert Kennedy has been extremely impressive. The good thing is, you have more guys with high ability than what we had last year. That competition is going to bring out the best in everybody.”