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College Sports in the Carolinas


View from the East
Monday, September 1, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Department of defense assumes new "responsibility"


It says a lot about East Carolina's defensive coordinator when the man who picked him is John Thompson, the Pirates' first-year head coach. Thompson has developed a high degree of professional judgment about coordinating defenses because that's what he's done himself for the bulk of his 22 years on the collegiate level at stops such as Florida, Arkansas and Southern Miss.

One could assume Thompson would be capable of making an informed hire in that situation. That's a reason to feel good about Jerry Odom even before the Pirates kick off the 2003 season at Cincinnati at noon today (ESPN). Both Thompson and Odom are sons of coaches. Although neither has
worked in their current position as a head coach or coordinator in Division I-A before, they both feel they have been preparing most of their lives for their new responsibilities.

Odom's dad is Gerald Odom, a highly successful high school coach in Florida who is approaching the 300-win plateau. Thompson saw the coaching gene in Odom last year when Odom coached linebackers on Thompson's defensive staff at the University of Florida.

"We call him the Gap Guru," Thompson said. "He just has the ability to see what's going on out there, break it down quickly and adjust."

Thompson and Odom inherited a Pirates defense that was already broken down, so to speak. During a 4-8 season in 2002, ECU's offense seemed to be repeatedly in the position of having to outscore the opposition as a result of its own mistakes and the ineffectiveness of a defensive unit whose passion seemed to have drifted down the Tar River. The Pirates allowed 445.7 yards of total offense per game, good for rock bottom in Conference USA, and opponents averaged an all-too-healthy 33.2 points per game.

There would likely have been a drastic turnover in defensive coaching personnel even if Steve Logan had remained head coach. But Thompson was given the charge of righting a ship that had listed to 10-14 over the last two seasons. His approach to getting ECU turned around has included simplifying the offense, creating a ball control capability with a stronger running game and reducing turnovers.

Elements of special teams play have been divided up among the staff. Tight ends coach Steve Janski works with the kickoff coverage team and wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway is in charge of kickoff returns.

And, of course, Thompson put the phase of the game closest to his own heart, the defense, in Odom's hands. Cincinnati quarterback Gino Guidugli may not recognize the defense he saw last season when he passed for 323 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-26 Bearcats win in ECU's last game. That's part of the Pirates' new defensive design.

"We try to be real multiple — give a lot of different looks, but still at the same time keep it relatively simple for our guys," Odom said. "We have a system and we try to play within that system. I think it gives us an opportunity to create mismatches and chaos on our side instead of the offense trying to create mismatches on us."

Odom has encountered no lack of willingness on the Pirates part.

"I think what we've found here is some kids who want to play ball," he said. "They want to be good. Some of them weren't quite sure how. ... I wouldn't talk about another staff. All I looked at was what we saw last year. I think the thing that we're trying to do is to get them to take responsibility for their actions. They have a certain responsibility and we don't want them to let down their teammates.

"We want them to be disciplined, do their job and get to the football. Be hungry, be disciplined and be smart. If we do those three things, that's what we're looking for. We don't want to give up the big play. Looking at last year, that was one thing that stood out. I believe there were 39 plays in the range of 40 yards.

"They'd be playing great, playing great and all of a sudden they'd give up two big plays. That's something we've got to eliminate. We've got to keep ourselves in games and make people earn what they're going to earn. ... The kids have really tried to respond. They want to be good."

Thompson said it took about half a season before the Florida players grasped his system last season. He thinks the Pirates can adjust faster because he has worked with the members of this defensive staff before and they know what he wants.

Thompson was impressed with young ECU defensive backs coach Matt Graves at Arkansas. Thompson coached with former Ole Miss defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, ECU's defensive line coach, in the 1980s at Northwestern (La.) State. ECU outside linebackers coach Fred Tate played on some solid Southern Miss defensive fronts when Thompson coached there. And Thompson developed an appreciation for the Gap Guru's skills last year at Florida.

Among the players who aren't yet household names among Pirates fans, Odom feels defensive end Ike Emodi and defensive linemen Eric Terry and Shauntae Hunt could emerge after missing spring practice. Mickey McCoy and Markeith McQueen, who have moved over from the offensive side, could also be capable of stepping up to significant roles. True freshman defensive back Erode Jean has also been impressive, Odom said.

Odom played linebacker at Florida from 1987 to 1990 and feels ECU's youthful linebacking corps will be a key element of defensive improvement.

"I want them to be the quarterbacks on the field defensively," Odom said. "You can't do that if you're running around like a chicken with your head cut off. We've really worked on what people are trying to do to you blocking-scheme wise, where you fit in the defense off the blocking scheme and where you fit in coverage. They want to be good. That's been a pleasure. We haven't had any attitude problems."

Odom played in the Arena Football League and coached high school football in the offseason in the 1990s. He retired as a player after helping the Orlando Predators to the Arena Bowl championship in 1998. Being a player relatively recently helps him relate to his defensive charges.

"There's some value," he said. "I think you know when you can push 'em and when to get on 'em and other times when you put your arm around them. You remember, 'Hot, hot day,' but that doesn't mean you're not going to keep driving 'em to be the best they can be. At the same time, you know there are times when you need to back off.

"You can't be their friend but you've got to be a guy who kind of walks the edge of being their friend and being someone they respect. I've watched coaches make the mistake of becoming a friend all the time and players lose respect for you. I think I'd much rather be respected than have a bunch of friends."

Odom and the Pirates have increasingly shifted focus from learning new systems to preparing for Cincinnati during the course of preseason practice.

"They have a great quarterback, a guy who's thrown for a lot of yards," Odom said. "He's been in the wars before and they have a lot of confidence in him as a coaching staff. It's a situation where you obviously better put a lot of emphasis on him. At the same time, they run the ball very well out of their one-back stuff.

"They've got their inside core, two centers and a guard back, and after that we don't know a lot about them. They've got some other guys who have played some. Their receivers, they tell me, are very athletic. One was a back-up quarterback so he can do some good things for them. I don't expect them to change a whole lot. They've kind of done what they've done the last three of four years and been very, very successful at it.

"Our challenge is to go in there and we've got to keep mixing it up. We've got to make them work. ... I don't think they're going to change that much but if they do, we've got a plan for that, too. They're a good football team. We're going to have to play well but I'm confident that if we play well, we'll be happy with the results."

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02/23/2007 12:41:38 AM

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