CHERUBINI CHIMES IN
Thursday, January 12, 2012
By Ron Cherubini
Brian Mitchell sees
more progress ahead
Insightful Q&A with ECU's Defensive Coordinator
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Bonesville Mobile Alpha version of this page.
(ECU Media Relations File
Relations File Photos)
Bonesville features writer Ron Cherubini
conducted one-on-one interviews with East Carolina
offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (left) and
Pirate defensive boss Brian Mitchell (right).
Links to the wide-ranging Q&A sessions:
Lincoln Riley Q&A
Brian Mitchell Q&A
It was just two
seasons ago when East Carolina fans were up in arms about a defense
that seemingly excelled at futility. That season, while the offense was
setting school record after school record, the defense was wrought with
injuries to an already young unit and the results were not pretty. In
fact, the Pirates finished dead last in total defense in 2010 and many
in the Pirate Nation didn’t know what to expect in 2011.
In a decisive move,
defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell lobbied his boss, Ruffin McNeill, to
make a philosophical defensive shift from the 4-3 to the 3-4 scheme. The aim
was to create depth where there was none (defensive line) and to put the
biggest defense burden on those with better athletic skillsets — the
The switch was made
and, despite a line-up that featured just three seniors, the defense made
dramatic improvements to finish last season ranked in the mid-50s in total
defense. More importantly, the unit reversed every negative statistic from
the previous campaign.
Now with another year
of experience, the East Carolina defense appears poised to make a run at
becoming one of the better ones around. With key leaders in each component
of the unit — Michael Brooks on the defensive line, Jeremy Grove at
linebacker, and Damon Magazu in the secondary — the outlook for 2012 makes
2010 seem like eons ago.
Sitting down with
Coach Mitchell, you can tell he is excited for next season and what his
defense might be able to do with another year of experience spread across
some 25 players. He
shares his insights into last season and his expectations in 2012:
Hope you have had a bit of a chance to unwind over the holidays and get
ready for 2012.
Brian Mitchell (BM):
have liked to have been in a bowl game… that wasn’t a good feeling not
having a bowl game this year, but I did get a few days. But I am excited
about getting back in and continuing the process with these guys (heading
into spring 2012).
Looking back at last
season, you still had some serious injuries to deal with, but not like 2010.
The statistical improvement was nothing short of dramatic. Looking beyond
the statistics, can you tell me your first impressions of how the defense
played in 2011?
What I saw last season
is twofold. Number one, our kids learned how to work. Going into spring
football (2011) and fall camp, there were some things we wanted to see. One
was deliberate work and what I mean by deliberate work is to throw at them
things that they do not feel comfortable with to learn how to outwork your
opponent every day we step out there. So, our kids learned how to work. They
took what they experienced in the (previous) fall (2010) and said, ‘Hey, we
can be better than what we showed out there… than what we saw on the film.’
So our kids went into the weight room and went into the off-season with the
mindset that we were going to learn how to work. And the second part of it
was that we put them in a scheme that features their talents. We were able
to go out and acquire the knowledge and implement a system that allowed the
same exact kids that we played with the year before and gave them a
competitive advantage that allowed them to succeed.
You mention the system
switch to 3-4. How much of the success goes to the reps that the kids got in
2010 and how much do you think goes to the new system?
I think we took a
group of kids — you go back to two years ago and a lot of the kids (the
season before) were graduating or no longer part of the program — the
learning curve was tremendous and very difficult for us to get a handle on
it. The majority of the kids we had were basically playing high school
football the year before or had never stepped on the field in a competitive,
D-1 football environment. We were not only having them make adjustments
schematically, we were also having to make adjustments mentally. There were
a lot of times where these kids would hit the wall and they didn’t have an
understanding of how to react to situations. I think that maturity (gained
in 2010) allowed us to switch over to the 3-4 this season. We were low on
D-linemen — no ifs, ands, or buts about that — and we were playing with guys
who were undersized for that position and unable to finish and make plays in
certain situations. But by putting them in the 3-4, we weren’t relying on
those guys as heavily as we did in the 4-3 to stop the run and create a pass
rush and do things of that nature.
You see the linebacker
production last season just go through the rough. Does it reveal how much
better the defensive line functioned in the 3-4?
Well, it goes
hand-in-hand. Everything has to be in perfect alignment for linebackers, the
secondary and the D-linemen to excel in this scheme. But what we are asking
them to do is attainable. It is not something that is going to be a reach
for each man’s talent. Those D-lineman did a great job of occupying four and
five offensive linemen to get those linebackers an opportunity to run down
hill. It is a gapped up defense down inside which allows your linebackers to
run more freely. And then, athletically, our linebackers last year were some
of our better athletes on this team. They were also some of our headiest
players as far as football IQs, so those kids understood the scheme and
where things fit. And, of course, the repetitions… doing it over and over
and over again knowing, for example, exactly where the nose tackle is going
to be on a given situation. This benefited our kids tremendously and we
didn’t deviate from that one bit. That repetition allowed these kids to see
several plays over and over again, but also allowed them to anticipate which
plays were going for various situations.
Looking at the stats,
across the board… every indicator is dramatically improved. Did you
anticipate that drastic of an improvement?
It was really an
unknown. We knew what we had — a bunch of kids who wanted to work and to
prove what happened the year before was not their character, their demeanor,
their ability and our coaches were the same way. You go into a year and you
are saying you can hang your hat on “this” or you can hang your hat on
“that”… Well, we hung our hat on the fact that our kids are going to work.
It doesn’t matter what scheme you are in, as long as they are working…
running to the ball… being aggressive and violent within the play calling.
We knew that we would do some good things if that happened. Did we know that
a Jeremy Grove or a Daniel Drake would step up like they did? We didn’t know
that. We didn’t have a blueprint to go off of other than what they did in
spring. For these kids to have some success within a scheme that isn’t even
a year old yet, I think speaks volumes to them and to our coaches. You know
Coach (John) Wiley, Coach (Marc) Yellock, Coach (Duane) Price and our other
assistants… they did a great job of buying in and wanting to say, ‘Hey, we
are part of this football team, we can all contribute.” And it all started
with work… with getting in the weight room, film study, so forth.
Did you stay in the
booth all season? If yes, what does it do for you that you couldn’t get done
down on the field the year before?
I did stay in the
booth all year long. You know, looking at the dynamics of our staff, I
thought it would be best if I were to go up and to put Coach Wiley down on
the football field. From staff dynamic… I have been up in the box most of my
coaching career. I see things from a different perspective up there. I
adjust differently when I am up in the box than when I am on the football
field. The communication between myself, Coach Wiley and Coach Yellock, I
think has improved and we were able to make adjustments better. The calmness
of being up in the box and being able to flow much easier is why I stay up
in the box.
With a young
secondary, will you be able to do the same in 2012?
We will see how it goes this year. I think if the kids prepare throughout
the week like they should, I will stay in the box. I know that there will be
three new starters in there with (Damon) Magazu, but I feel that Magz can
lead and direct and get everyone on the same page out there on the football
field… and make adjustments. I think that the one thing we had a big jump in
was football IQ and knowing things that were going to happen before they
happened. And those four kids we had back there (in 2011) were able to push
each other and be on the same page. I think Coach Wiley and Coach Yellock
will do a great job of making adjustments there because we don’t do a game
plan with just my inputs… it is a collective effort and every coach has
input. The adjustments that we will be making with the defensive line,
linebackers and secondary are known well by everyone in that meeting room.
Obviously, things went
much better for the defense, but was there anything that you were
disappointed in or wish you could have over?
know, I would like to get the run game down to more like 130-125 yards
(allowed) a game, but to see a 50-yard drop… that is tremendous. You don’t
see a drastic change from last in the country where we were to the mid-50s
in total defense overnight. I think as we progress in this defense as a
coaching staff and as a unit, we are going to come up with other ways to
attack an offense and create more unpredictability in how we go about our
business. At this point, the only thing that disappoints me is the thought
that there may be a single play out there that stopped us from going to a
bowl game this year. I have not gone back and evaluated every game like we
will when we get back from recruiting, but that is something that sticks in
my mind. Did we give up the long run like a Marshall or the long pass on
first down that cost us (the bowl)? I don’t know, but that is where I might
Last question on last
season. So, you see Lincoln (Riley) kind of going through the same nightmare
you went through in 2010 with all the injuries. Did you console him at all
last season? Share any lessons learned, one coordinator to the other?
I didn’t give him any
pep talks or anything, but the one thing that does come to mind is the fact
that you are the same coach you were when you were breaking all of those ECU
records a year ago, so I would say, 'Don’t change the way you go about doing
what you do.’ You just have to keep figuring out what your kids can do and
what they can handle and that is the only advice I would give Lincoln. I am
the still the same coach who won 14 games and had one of the top secondaries
in the Big 12 for four years back at BYU… so, yeah, don’t change what you
are doing and what you believe in. Go from there.
So, let’s turn to 2012
and spring ball coming up. Can you give me your assessment of the work that
Michael Brooks did and the two young ends, Matt Milner and Derrell Johnson,
did for the team up on the defensive line?
Sure. You know what…
they were the anchor… the first line defense for our defense. You talk about
Lee Pegues, Matt Milner, Derrell Johnson and those guys were outstanding
week-in and week-out. Look at Michael and Terry Williams — who doesn’t fit
the typical profile — but had a great year for us as a backup at nose. He
and Michael were as dominant at nose tackle as you will see in this
conference. I am very excited about having both of them back this season
there in the middle. Matt, Lee, Derrell are cat-like quick at the
4-technique. They are not the traditional 6-5, 280-90 pound guys who are
just wallsitters. They are athletic enough to come off blocks and make
tackles in the backfield and use athleticism for sacks. I was very pleased
with the production of our front knowing that we lost some very key players
in Leroy Vick and John Lattimore there with injuries in the spring and
So you are feeling pretty good about the depth in the spring?
The one thing that you
talk about in this scheme is the collective. It is not an individual, it is
the collective. That is why you don’t have all these big numbers — other
than (Jeremy) Grove and (Daniel) Drake at the Mike positions — because if
you look at the collective, when everyone is in alignment, ALL of them are
productive. It is not going to be flashy but you have every guy in their
working and producing. But, up front, I am feeling really good about the
experience that our kids have gained over the last couple of years and the
way they are working. When you have a nice stable of guys like John
Lattimore, Leroy Vick and Jonathon White, Terrell Stanley, Jeton Beavers…
guys that are just as athletic as the guys you are playing with… you add
that group to the mix, the competitive beast that is going to come out of
each of them is going to take the whole group to a higher level. Another guy
I am looking forward to having a great few years here is Crishon Rose who is
in that group, too.
We also moved Justin
Dixon back down to the defensive line. At 265 pounds he is going to be a
force in there at the 4-technique. We are going to get him honed in at that
position. I think coming off the knee injury, you know, I think you never
have a knee heal in one year and I think not having a spring slowed his
progression more than anything. He is going to be a great third-down
specialist for us and we are going to find a way to feature his talents on
this defense because he has great talent.
I think we are going
to go three-deep and I am talking about three-deep in production not bodies.
I think the guys in that three-deep will play and there might even be a
rotation where each guys is only playing 20-25 snaps a game because each of
them are equally productive.
Understand that Vick
is getting huge. Will he be inside only?
We have options with
Vick… but you know that is one of the great things about how we have
implemented the 3-4 here. Really, the nose is really not playing any
different than those guys in the 4-technique so, really, all of these guys
are virtually interchangeable, allowing you to put your best three guys out
there for the right situation whether that be a scenario where you have
Lattimore, Brooks, and Vick all out there at one time or another group. You
still don’t lose the integrity of the defense and that is the beauty of what
we have done here with the 3-4 defense. As long as they are productive,
gap-sound and make plays, why not get different combinations out there for
different situations? Why not, if say we are playing a running team, get
three 300-pounders out there that are still cat-quick and can rush the
passer but also be damn stout against the run?
Moving on to the
linebacking corps, when we last sat down like this, you had made a point to
underscore how excited and pleased you were with the spring camp and summer
efforts of Jeremy Grove. In fact, you cited him as having had the best camp
of all the backers. Did his output surprise you?
I think with Jeremy,
his success is based on three things. When you sit down and talk to the
kids, the first thing you want to know... if that kid loves the game. Does
he love to play football, does he love film study, does he love to get in
the weight room, does he love the physical aspects of this game? Jeremy
Grove fits all those criteria and then you add the intangibles that he has
which I have not been around in a player for some time with the intangibles
he brings. He has natural ability that is innate and somehow just knows how
to bend, twist, slip through, to make the tackle and he is the epitome — one
of those pillars you want to build your defense around. And what’s great, is
that he is going to be here for three more years. And, you know, he is also
great off the field.
When we last talked
you also had put Ty Holmes up there as well in regards to ready for prime
time. He was not the fixture in the defense that Jeremy was. Is Ty still
pushing up the depth chart?
Well… I felt Ty
throughout the year showed improvement and he did some really good things
this season. His problem was that he had a freshman All-American playing in
front of him that didn’t want to leave the field… that was his “problem.”
We’re not going to take a kid of that caliber off the field if he is
healthy, productive and making plays and doesn’t need a rest… like Grove
did. I think Ty is a very versatile player who we used some at other
positions and who played very well on third down — as we used him in the
last game because of injury. Given an opportunity, he will excel.
Looking at the other
Mike linebacker, Daniel Drake, can you share some thoughts on a guy who
seemingly came out of left field to be a starter at Mike?
First off, Daniel Drake was probably the most integral part — early on,
particularly — of this defense as any player out there. For a
guy who was 5th or 6th on the depth chart coming of out spring,
becoming a starter versus South Carolina and being one of the nation’s
leading tacklers most of the year, I can’t say enough about his desire and
commitment to this team and Coach Wiley’s coaching. Daniel had such an inner
desire to not let his teammates down that just spread to the whole team. He
battled week-in and week-out knowing he didn’t have anyone behind him
besides another walk-on. He fought through a lot to be on that football
field, not letting a nagging injury and an often-times debilitating
condition sideline him and keep him from what he loves to do on that field.
When you have competition at a position, it makes everyone much better and
so you look at Kyle Tudor there knowing he has Daniel there in front of him,
had to come back (from his injury) — not that he didn’t have the mentality
of a warrior because he does — but having Daniel there in front of him
elevated Kyle’s will and want to go out and be productive. And having that
front in there, it allowed our linebackers to be the players they should be.
But, they have to be good tacklers and that is what they all did all year
long. Kyle has the boxer mentality in the 15th round — 'You’re not going to
knock me down… I am going to win this fight.' — based off shear energy and
commitment and love of the game. Those two make each other better. They are
equal in play-making ability. They will likely split time.
Looking at the outside
positions, it seemed like Chris Baker — the JUCO — came in and really locked
in and then Marke Powell seemed to be very active and consistent as well.
Talk about the outside guys some.
At our Will backer we
have Chris Baker, Jake Geary and Maurice Falls — all three of those guys
played a key role at that position at some point in time during the season.
Having Chris come back for his senior season with more experience and
getting away from some of the junior college ways, he is going to be a
bigger and more athletic player now with a year in the program, and then
Jake — he is exactly what you want your program to be. That kid is so
unassuming, a hard worker and when you put him on the field he is so
animated and so productive and does everything the right way. He’s a blue
collar guy and that is the type I want around me. Not that talented guys who
run a 4.3 and jump out the gym aren’t what we want… that is eventually where
we are going to get to here, but we want the athlete that wants to outwork
his opponent week in and week out and Jake Geary — as a redshirt freshman —
is one of those guys who within this scheme was able to finish and make
plays, be assignment sound, and give great effort. And if you can do those
things, you can very productive in this system. It is not magic that they
were productive. The scheme allows them to be productive down after down. I
am excited about those three guys. Maurice is a guy who played his first
football this year and was very productive for us, especially on third down
rushing the passer, and he is versatile enough for us that he was able to go
over and play some Sam backer for us. He gives us versatility, size, speed…
looking forward to seeing how much he matures this spring because he made a
big jump toward the latter part of the season.
How about on the field
side, the Sam position?
To our Sams… of course
Marke Powell has been a fixture in the program for three years. He is a very
athletic young man that is going to be a senior. I think we are going to
need more leadership out of Marke and I think he is willing to do that. I
tell you what, when that kid is out there, he gives you everything he’s got.
He is spent after practice. You never see him take a play off. I think
having this year under his belt… learning to play on two feet since he has
always been a defensive end here — I think that learning curve has gotten
shorter and I think he is going to have a breakout year this year. Behind
him is a young man named Montese Overton who was redshirted last year. He is
one of the fastest kids on our team and a very dynamic athlete… very tuned
in to what we are doing. He is going to give us a different look out there
on the field with his speed and athleticism. Whereas we were playing mostly
zone with those other guys, we might play more man-to-man and blitz him a
little more because I think he will be great off the edge.
Looking at the unit
that is probably closest to your heart, the defensive backs, you lose not
only three starters but arguably the best corner in the league and a pretty
darn good safety as well. Talk about some of the young guys you are
expecting to step up and hopefully build around Magazu back there.
I think that there is
going to be a great battle out there with Jacobi Jenkins and we signed a kid
in December in Adonis Armstrong… he’s a kid who had 7-plus interceptions and
5 touchdowns — whether they be interception returns or kick returns — he
will come in and battle hard. And of course, we have some kids coming in and
we can talk about them once they are all signed. But, Jacobi he has been
like a son to me. Every success he has, I can do nothing but say, 'Well
done.' You know, for that kid him to come in here and he didn’t have corner
skills, but he had corner ability, and to play the way he did last season
speaks volumes for him. Having another spring under his belt and learning
more about the position and having some of those skills become innate… I
think he will vie for the starting position out at field corner. He will
work hard… he just does and that is sort of what I am saying about a lot of
our players… they just work so hard. They know how to go about their
business without coming up with excuses and Jacobi has that mentality. He
will be in the rotation if not the starter. When we get Adonis in here we’ll
determine which side he is best suited for. If we get the players we need in
here through our recruiting, I think we will be playing more like 8 guys
back there and maybe play a little more than just nickel on third down and
have more than just depth, but quality depth. Guys like last season where we
had Leonard Paulk ready to step in for Emanuel Davis at South Carolina.
Tremendous help to us last year when ED couldn’t play and he was very
productive, sound in his assignments, great in tackling, gave us a physical
presence on the football field when ED was not out there. Leonard
contributed in a way that shows that the kid understands, he’s blossomed,
he’s arrived and I think this kid is going to have a great year this fall, I
really do. He is one of our best athletes on the team with a great mentality
day-in and day-out, great off the field, great worker. He is a very excited
player out there.
You talked about Paulk
on the boundary and your expectations for him and that you expect to get
some immediate help should we sign who we expect to sign in February, but
can you speak to some of the guys currently in the program who might be able
to challenge at corner in the spring?
It is all predicated
on recruiting, but I think that Rocco Scarfone is a young man who can play
inside or outside or field corner or boundary corner. He is cut from the
same cloth as Magz and Jacobi… he wants to do whatever the team needs him to
do to help. Rocco has great speed, great instincts, high football IQ. I am
looking forward to working with Rocco. I am looking forward to working with
Detric Allen as well. I want to see how he has matured in this second spring
camp. He has a great body on him, he has a great understanding of what we
are doing schematically and does everything he is asked to do. Let’s see if
that fire is going to be lit underneath him since he didn’t play corner in
high school… to see if he is developing those intangibles that will allow
him to be more consistent. I feel good about those two young players. We
have another young man, Kris Sykes, who is such a great story. Last year, he
was a young man who played his first college football as a junior and I tell
you what, you talk about a kid who is a go-getter, a good athlete… wants to
be here, wants to do whatever it takes to help this team win — that is Kris.
The production he gave us last year at nickel was his first introduction to
football and he did a really good job at nickel for us, so he will have an
opportunity to compete for one of those corner spots.
You talked about Magz
and building around him, but who else are you expecting to be in the mix at
safety this year? Can Desi (Brown) or Lamar (Ivey) step in to a full-time
job this year?
I think everyone knows
that Magz is Magz. He is the rock, the foundation of everything we do back
there. He will call our signals and get everyone lined up. But, you know, I
thought that Justin Venable did a good job of giving Magz a spell every once
in awhile and will be a solid backup. Lamar and Desi, I think they are two
young players who are like sponges. I thought Lamar at the beginning of the
year was going to be pushing Bradley Jacobs for the position but he just hit
the brick wall like most young players do and his learning curve kind of
stopped. He is very talented, very heady, he is a young man that if he
learns how to continue to work at a high level — not just status quo — he
will be a young man that with his athletic ability and football IQ can be a
very dominant football player. Desi sort of had an opposite experience last
season. I thought early on he was like a deer in the headlights. The one
great thing about Desi, last year, was that Brad had classes two days a week
that had him away from practice time, so Desi got reps every day and he
gradually improved to the point where in the last few games, I thought he
was going to get in the games. I am excited about Desi because he gives you
a big, physical body over there and when you put him or Lamar next to Magz
back there, we have two very good safeties on the field. Godfrey Thompson is
a hybrid type guy at 6-0, 200 pounds and will probably be one of the faster
guys on this team and will give us versatility back there. I am looking for
him to come in and have great impact for us. You don’t sign those JC guys
not to come in and compete right away and contribute. I think he is a quiet
guy who can lead, and on the field he is a very, very violent player who I
am looking forward to showcasing some of his talents this year.
As far as recruiting,
share your thoughts on how recruiting is going?
I think it is going
great. You need a mixture of old and new talent and that is why we are going
after a couple of JCs in the secondary. You need mature guys to help bridge
the gap between the Roccos and Detrics and some of the younger guys who are
coming in, in case they are not ready mentally. Last year, we had some guys
who could have helped us, but mentally they were not prepared to go through
a season and the redshirt benefited them. This recruiting class, we are
doing a good job with the junior college guys we are bringing in and there
might be one or two freshman who can step in, learn the scheme and handle
the off-field responsibilities in a way that will allow them to be players
on the football field. We take each one case-by-case based on maturity and
capacity to succeed.
With so much of the
young talent emerging, do you approach things differently this season?
BM: The classes are
spread out to the point where we are building the foundation. Like in 2010,
I am looking at the board and a lot of these guys played in 2010 with very
little senior and junior leadership, but now you look and it is juniors and
sophomores with a few seniors sprinkled in, but the core is our freshman and
sophomores. Once the system is in place, the way we think schematically, we
are plugging guys in year after year. We play 22-25 guys each week, so
year-in and year-out we are building experience which is sort of what
happened with a guy like Lee Pegues and Derrell Johnson, Matt Milner, and
Terry Williams. If you have the competition you are not making wholesale
changes in any given year.
All the coaches were
excited with the progress (strength and conditioning coach) Jeff Connors had
in half a year on the players. What are your thoughts about a full year with
know, it is another tool, another vehicle to enhance what we do on the
football field. You can’t have one without the other. I think what Jeff
Connors and his staff have done has been a tremendous asset to this team on
both sides of the ball. If kids go in and buy into what he is selling,
they’re going to be a better football player in the end. I think our kids
bought into it because they knew... because there was nowhere else to go but
up, so they said, 'Hey, we tried our way, now let’s try their way.'
I think with them
buying in and being around our way of doing things speaks volumes for them.
I think there will be an even bigger jump strength-wise for our program. We
benefited mostly from our lower body explosiveness and lateral quickness
last year and of course injury prevention was a key benefit to this program.
Our kids did not slow down — we played fast for four quarters… 60 minutes...
and that is conditioning. Jeff has been and will be critical for us.
Ron Cherubini Archives
01/12/2012 10:08 AM