ECU largely struggled as a team to get to the quarterback last season. Their 23 sacks ranked toward the back-end of FBS programs, while 70 tackles for loss as a team put them squarely in the middle of the country at 71st.
One man accounted for nearly half of the Pirates’ sacks in 2019, and 23% of their tackles for loss. From his defensive end position, Kendall Futrell established himself as one of the better pass rushers in the American Athletic Conference, finishing third in the league in sacks and fourth in TFL.
Futrell has moved on and signed a professional contract with the Bengals, while Alex Turner and Chance Purvis are also no longer on the Pirates’ roster. Between those three, ECU lost 39 TFL and 18.5 sacks from last year.
With extensive turnover on defense, particularly up front, it will be important for new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell to find impact pass rushers to replace what was lost. Luckily for the Pirates, Harrell’s scheme does not solely rely on defensive ends and tackles to rush the passer, but also gets the second level involved too.
“I think that through coach Harrell’s scheme, you’re going to create pass rushers from all over the place,” head coach Mike Houston said on Tuesday. “That’s one thing coach (Donnie) Kirkpatrick has commented on is, he’s seen everything he’s probably going to see all year already in preseason camp. Rick D’Abreu, I think, is having a very solid camp. He’s a guy that has a pretty quick twitch, pretty athletic. That’s a guy that has stood out to a degree there. I think some of the young kids; Jason Romero, Kareem Stinson, very athletic, really good speed off the edge. Then some of your second level guys, the backers and stuff like that. You’re going to see some of those guys involved in the pass rush pretty regularly.”
Romero and Stinson are a couple of the many defensive linemen Houston and his staff brought in during the off-season. With all four starters gone from last season and not many experienced guys to fill those positions, the Pirates will likely have to lean on some younger talent in 2020.
D’Abreu, however, spent 2019 backing up Purvis as a true freshman. He played in 11 games and logged 10 tackles while contributing on special teams. Hozey Haji-Badri joins D’Abreu as one of the only returners with collegiate experience along the defensive line. Haji-Badri is entering his senior season after transferring from ASA College prior to 2019.
In 10 games last season, Haji-Badri recorded 11 tackles and 0.5 TFL. He will likely compete for playing time at one of the defensive tackle positions after spending much of last year shadowing Turner and Jalen Price on the two-deep.
“I’m excited about those kids up front,” Harrell told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game on Monday. “I think they’re fitting into what we’re doing well, buying into it and really fitting the scheme well…You got some athleticism up front and guys that can move and pass rush and do those things, as well as some young kids that add a little size in there. It allows you to do multiple things up there.”
Last year, the Pirates’ depth up front was nonexistent, meaning guys like Turner and Futrell were tasked with playing 80-90 snaps per game. Early in the season that was no issue, but as the campaign deepened, those guys wore down and their production suffered. With a healthy rotation of players up front like Harrell has planned, ECU will always have fresh defensive linemen on the field to plug gaps and chase down ball carriers.
A little more than two weeks in preseason practice, Houston has identified improvements on that side of the football. While it will take some for the younger guys longer to learn the scheme, Houston has been pleased with the effort and intensity his defensive players have offered during practice and scrimmages.
For that Houston credits his new defensive coordinator, as Harrell has brought with him a much-needed shift in energy level that is driving the multitude of incremental improvements to his defensive unit.
“I think, one, the kids are having a lot of fun,” Houston said. “I think he’s (Harrell) done a great job re-energizing that group. They play with a lot of emotion, they play really, really hard. You can see the confidence that they’re gaining daily. With each day that goes by, he and the kids are feeling more and more comfortable. It’s still — you’re 15 practices into a brand new system — there’s still a long way to go. But every single day you see improvement there with that.”