Linebackers Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens combined for 142 tackles in 2019, as both finished inside the top-five on the roster in total tackles. Smith, who found himself starting the majority of the time at weakside linebacker, actually paced the team with 81 total tackles last year.

Heading into the 2020 campaign, the Pirates’ linebacking corps looks to be a solid position room as both Smith and Bivens enter upperclassmen campaigns. Gerard Stringer, however, who earned all 12 starts as ECU’s outside linebacker in 2019, will miss the entirety of this year after suffering an ankle injury earlier in the off-season.

Nevertheless, ECU’s top returning linebackers are looking really good through the first week of preseason practice, according to their head coach.

“I’ve been really pleased with them through this first week of practice,” Houston said. “Bruce looks like what I expected him to be last year, playing with a lot of confidence, playing very fast, playing very physical. Really excited about him and the job he’s doing, but those two had a solid start right there. Xavier, he’s taking that next step. I see him being one of the leaders of our defense. He’s kind of embraced that role, but those two are playing at a pretty high level.”

While that duo combined for well over 100 tackles in ‘19, they mustered just one quarterback hit and four tackles for loss between them. Of course, those numbers likely had to do more with ECU’s defensive play style and not necessarily their abilities on the field. Under new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell, however, the Pirates will employ a multiple defense that figures to bring more pressure on opposing quarterbacks throughout the season.

As Smith and Bivens lead the Pirates’ linebacker room, there remains plenty of talent deeper in the depth chart. Aaron Ramseur continues to work his way back from an ACL injury suffered late last season, while a full year of Delvontae Harris will be much-needed for the Pirates.

Myles Berry, who earned some starts in relief of Smith, is entering his junior campaign after racking up 14 tackles in 12 games last year. Jireh Wilson worked his way onto the field in the latter half of last season, playing in 12 games and amassing 28 tackles and a sack as a true freshman.

“Myles Berry is in competition right there with them (Smith and Bivens),” Houston said. “Aaron Ramseur, we all know about him, he’s coming back from that injury. He keeps improving everyday and playing a little bit better everyday. I feel pretty good about our returning guys inside…Jireh Wilson has been taking most of the reps with the first group at the SAM position. Really like his length.

“Of course he came on last year, I thought he played really well in the second half of the season, but he’s improved upon that. Now you’ve got a guy that’s long, really good in coverage, he’s a physical player. I feel good about him.”

While the Pirates figure to have their linebacker rotation just about filled out with returning players, they do possess some intriguing young talent in freshmen brought in during this recruiting cycle. Eric Doctor was the only 2020 commit listed at linebacker for this recruiting cycle, but H.D. Woodson High School product Teylor Jackson now appears on ECU’s online roster as an inside linebacker after spending his final prep season at the safety position.

A candidate to fill a hybrid role for the Pirates with his six-foot, 218-pound frame, Jackson has been impressing Houston thus far in camp.

“Teylor Jackson has been the young guy that I think stood out,” Houston said. “He might be a guy that’s ready to play this year as a freshman. No doubt whenever he does play, he’s going to be a really good player for us. He has a lot of explosion, great feet, really good speed.”

Like every other position on both sides of the football, the Pirates are attempting to build up as much depth as possible during preseason practices. With contact tracing efforts in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19, Houston had said previously that he wants his team to be three-deep at every position in order to be prepared for the possibility of shifting lineups.

At the linebacker position, with a good mix of returning talent and solid incoming freshmen, the Pirates should not have a hard time finding a good combination of impact talent week in and week out.

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