After finishing 119th in the FBS last season in total defense, the Pirates shook up their defensive coaching staff during the off-season. Steve Ellis and Tripp Weaver took over the cornerback and safeties room, respectively, while ECU split up defensive line duties between Roy Tesh and Byron Thweatt.
Blake Harrell was brought in from Kennesaw State to coordinate ECU’s defensive effort moving forward, and attempt to move the Pirates toward fielding a competitive unit in 2020. Certainly, Mike Houston’s second recruiting class as ECU’s head coach will help in the transformation of the defense, but in Ellis, the Pirates have found a high energy, high-caliber coach to guide their cornerbacks.
“The thing that immediately jumps out about coach Ellis is just what a high-energy coach he is,” Houston said on Thursday. “He really pushes his players very, very hard, coaches them hard. He’s already found a way to connect with the players in a manner that they embrace that style of coaching, and I think he’s given them a lot of confidence. That’s the biggest difference I see from that group right now, is just what confidence they’re playing with.”
ECU’s defensive unit turned the offense over seven times during last week’s scrimmage and allowed just four plays of 20-plus yards in a 94-play scrimmage. Last season, that unit struggled in just about every major defensive category, ranking toward the bottom of the FBS in passing yards allowed, opponent passing efficiency and scoring defense.
Up front, the Pirates will be void of all four starters from last year’s team, but the secondary will return much of the same personnel. Freshman stand out corner Ja’Quan McMillian is back for his sophomore campaign, but Colby Gore exhausted his eligibility after the 2019 campaign. Safety Daniel Charles was also lost during the off-season after being disciplined by the coaching staff.
That leaves starts for Houston and his staff to fill at weak side cornerback and a safety position heading into this season.
About two weeks into preseason camp, and with a scrimmage under his team’s belt and another scheduled for Friday, Houston is starting to identify potential breakaways in position battles transpiring in the secondary. Sophomore Malik Fleming, in particular, has been working his way into more and more reps this preseason and using them to impress his coach.
“I think he’s been one that’s been very impressive,” Houston said. “We all saw last year — probably was not ready to play last year, but got a lot of game experience. Just watching him, he has put on some muscle. He’s really cleaned up his technique and his fundamentals. He’s playing with confidence, and his confidence and belief in himself is allowing him to really play fast. He’s just able to react so quickly to anything; ball in the air, breaks, anything like that because he does have very good short-space quickness. He has improved greatly since last year.”
Fleming played in all 12 games last season, mostly contributing as a special teams member. On the two-deep in the secondary, Fleming recorded just five tackles as a true freshman in 2019.
Not alone as a sophomore who has made a jump from his freshman campaign, Fleming is perhaps in the best position to see significant snaps as Gore’s replacement in the secondary. Nevertheless, guys like Nolan Johnson and Damel Hickman have also stood out this summer and have seemed to thrive under their new position coach.
“Nolan Johnson is battling a little bit of an injury right now, but had a really good start last week,” Houston said. “Got hope for him. Damel Hickman has been improved over last year. So I think those two guys have really benefited from coach Ellis.”
While the Pirates will undoubtedly be young on the defensive side of the football this year, they possess a better amount of depth than they did a season ago. In 2019, guys like Gore in the secondary and the entirety of the defensive line had to play nearly every snap because the depth simply did not exist to properly rotate players.
This year, on the other hand, the Pirates are deeper in all the necessary areas, something that will allow their defense to play at a much higher level moving forward.