Last season was a rough one for ECU football defensively. As a unit, the Pirates’ defense ranked last in the American Athletic Conference in total defense (469.3 yards per game), and allowed a season-high 669 yards against Tulsa in the final game of the year.

The Pirates found it equally as challenging stopping the run (207.8 yards allowed per game) and pass (261.6 yards allowed per game), prompting wholesale changes on that side of the football this off-season.

A new defensive coordinator in Blake Harrell was brought in, while the Pirates retooled their defensive line coaching personnel and hired Steve Ellis and Tripp Weaver to coach the cornerbacks and safeties, respectively.

Ellis and Weaver were tasked this off-season with finding replacements for Colby Gore and Daniel Charles, both of which contributed heavily to the Pirates’ secondary in 2019. To help with that, ECU brought in a slew of new faces in Junior College transfers Shawn Dourseau and Robert Kennedy, and high school talent in Sean Tucker and David Laney, just to name a few.

The Pirates also picked up Nigel Knott, a graduate transfer from Alabama, but he has had a difficult time staying on the field this preseason after dealing with a hamstring injury early in camp. In the absence of Knott, however, head coach Mike Houston has been pleased with a defensive back room that is transforming under the philosophy of Ellis.

“I think you got a lot of guys that are coming along quite nicely,” Houston said. “Shawn Dourseau has really been a pleasant surprise. Warren Saba is playing the best I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here. Juan Powell, Malik Fleming — I’ll tell you what — there’s a lot of fight in that guy too. All those guys are doing a great job. You got some other guys; Tank (Davondre Robinson) missed a little bit of time, he’s back now. Robert Kennedy has missed a little bit of time, he’s coming back soon. Nolan Johnson is having a pretty steady, solid preseason camp and then some of our young kids. David Laney and Sean Tucker, those guys have done some good things as well.”

Of that group mentioned, Saba represents the most experienced player. After shifting roles late last year from a hybrid linebacker to a more traditional back-end safety, Saba racked up 17 tackles, including one for a loss of yardage and blocked a punt on special teams. Powell bested him with 18 tackles in just four games as a true freshman after he was suspended for much of the season due to an off-the-field issue.

While the Pirates search for a cornerback to replace Gore ahead of their Sept. 26 opener, the other starting cornerback position seems to be locked up for the foreseeable future. As a true freshman last year, Ja’Quan McMillian burst onto the scene and quickly emerged as ECU’s best coverage back.

A mid-season addition to the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America Watch List, McMillian paced the Pirates with nine pass breakups. His 12 passes defended also led the program last year and tied him for fourth in the AAC.

McMillian chipped in a forced fumble and 38 tackles to go along with his three interceptions in 2019, giving him the most picks by a Pirate freshman since Emanuel Davis in 2008.

With those kinds of numbers, McMillian was given All-Freshman honors by Pro Football Focus and will open the 2020 season as a Preseason All-AAC selection by Athlon Sports.

While awards and honors are nice to read about, Houston is happy to have McMillian on the roster, not for his accolades, but for what he brings everyday in practice.

“He’s having an outstanding preseason,” Houston said. “I’m so grateful he’s in our program because he plays the game the way I want all of them to play. He has that edge, he’s a smart player, has ability, but he plays with a chip on his shoulder. He is not an extremely vocal guy. He’ll show some emotion every once in a while, but he very much does set the example with the way he plays every single snap. He’s a guy that you can use to teach and young guys to learn from.”

Right now, the Pirates’ defensive back position group is filled with young players. The same can be said for just about every defensive position on ECU’s roster, meaning seasoned players who approach the game correctly are more important than ever.

In McMillian, while he is just a sophomore himself with only 12 collegiate games under his belt, the Pirates have someone they can build their secondary around. Likely to get the call against every team’s best wide receiver this season, McMillian will be tested in ways he was not last year. How he responds to that will likely determine whether ECU takes a step forward on defense, or continues slipping down the rankings.

McMillian will, of course, need help in that area and the Pirates’ coaching staff is working feverishly to unearth the 11 best players that will take the field a little more than two weeks from now.

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