Monday, July 2, 2012
By Ron Cherubini
is the Word for Brian Mitchell
Chat with ECU's Defensive Coordinator
All rights reserved.
Mitchell has been a busy man since spring camp wrapped. East Carolina's
defensive coordinator has been hitting the road and looking to line up
future Pirate defenders. Football is exciting these days for Mitchell.
With a ton
of experience returning to a unit that has all the parts heading in the
right direction, the Pirates are looking more and more like they may be
resurrecting the defensive culture that won them two Conference USA
championships not that long ago.
dead least in the national statistics less than two years ago, finished
2011 as a top 60 defense and looking better each time out. Most of those
guys are back and, particularly up front, the Pirates are showing signs
of having big-time potential. After Mitchell and his staff endured the
pain of the 2010 season, rather than panicking, they dug in for the long
haul and began building a defense fitted to the talent they had in
stock. The result was a maturing group and newly found depth in
positions where they had little to none just a year earlier.
horizon is the beginning of a 2012 season when, at least defensively,
ECU fans are inclined to be at ease with Mitchell’s scheme and his
players. The faithful are likely to approach the campaign relishing the
prospects of a defense that might change games for the positive.
Mitchell and staff, the cogs keep turning and the mantra is the same.
defensive guys, you know, our theme has stayed the same,” said Coach
Mitchell. “Doing deliberate work was what we were all about. You know,
let’s put the time in as a collective, and let’s develop position
mastery at every position. I think our coaches did a great job of
progressing the schemes, progressing the kids both mentally and
Article continues below
the following image
year of the 3-4 now under their belts, the players and coaches are
diving deeper into the details and the results are seemingly a unit with
confidence, talent, and determination to be the best in the league. And
spring gave us a glimpse.
foremost as an overall view of what we did this spring, we were able to
develop great depth,” said Mitchell. “We knew we had about five
defensive linemen who contributed last year in significant ways but they
all redshirted for various reasons. Those young men added depth to the
front that was already a position where we have two-years of experience.
spring, top-to-bottom, there were 9-12 guys that can go at it to be a
starter. That in itself lends great depth to the foundation of what we
believe in — our front. Those guys did a great job not only in the run
game, the pass game, but they also progressed in the overall scheme and
part of that position mastery is not only learning what you need to
fundamentally and technically, but also mastering your position within
the scheme. I thought we were at least two-deep, three-deep in every
position coming out of the spring. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Mitchell watched that latter point evolve the hard way.
first year, we were coming out of spring with 14-15 guys who could help
us out there in a game, but now I feel like there are 30-plus that can
help us in football games going into this fall,” he said.
unlike the past…
come out of spring healthy,” he said. “You know, for example, we have a
young man we love named John Lattimore who was injured last season and
we expected to get — maybe — two weeks of work out of him, but we got
all four weeks out of John this spring and that was a tremendous bonus
for us. And there were some other guys — there were some injuries that
limited some guys, but all are expected to completely healthy this
knowledgeable, and all facing capable competition at every position. The
makings are of a unit that can be very good.
Mitchell was kind enough to share more of his thoughts about what we are
all hoping will prove to be a special unit for the Pirates this fall.
Below is my Q&A with Coach Mitchell.
Bonesville (BV): Word around the program has been basically that the
defense could be very, very good, particularly the front seven and
specifically the defensive line. Working against our offensive line, do
you feel like you got a good, true look at what each of these defensive
linemen can do in a game?
Mitchell (BM): We did… we did. I think that Coach Brandon Jones did a
great job with the offensive line this spring. They changed some things
up from a technical standpoint that we see on a day-to-day basis when we
are scheming or playing guys on other teams. Which was great work for
our guys. Their interior three are very stout and athletic up front and
I think our guys got good work. The thing we look for in our guys
mastering their positions is do they have a good stance, a good
foundation, a good balance? Can they react off certain blocks, do they
expect the redirect in certain situations? And I thought our kids —
every last one of them — were pushing themselves in every day drills and
it showed up on the football field. Everything they did in the classroom
showed up on the football field and we were able install more because
every kid here… their football knowledge… their football IQs have raised
in the last year and a half.
talking about the defensive line, who were the biggest surprises in the
don’t think there were any real surprises because we all know the
potential for these guys. I will say this, going into spring ball after
our self assessment of how each guy played last year, I have to say,
Terry Williams played great last season. He showed that in the spring
camp as well. He took two, three steps forward and continued to create
competition for Michael Brooks. Umm… Jonathan White, Terrell Stanley,
John Lattimore, Matt Milner… I could go through… Lee Pegues, his body
has changed and he is looking like that dominant end in the 3-4 scheme.
And, Crishon Rose, he is a young man who at 260 with an improved 40 time
and gives such a great effort and showed some ability to dominate at
times. I could say the same for all the defensive line guys on the depth
chart, but we knew we had a group of guys going into spring with the
potential to be very good. Coach (Marc) Yellock did a great job putting
together the drills that these kids put in their toolbox to perform for
Q&A continues below the
On the rise: Mitchell indicated that Terry
Williams is pushing top NG Michael Brooks.
(ECU Media Relations photo)
what you see with moving Derrell Johnson and Maurice Falls back to the
second level... was (it) met with some surprise given particularly
Johnson’s fantastic work last season? Did what you see out of the
defensive ends this spring serve to validate that move?
depth at the D-line afforded us the opportunity to move Derrell and
Maurice to outside linebacker. The loss of Marke (Powell) and Clff
Perryman — we needed depth at that position — moving Maurice to the Sam
position and Derrell to the Will because Jake was not able to go for the
spring. We were able to do that. Michael — and just so everyone knows,
Marc (Yellock) and Michael were playing games with me at the spring game
with Michael going in the 4-technique… he won’t be doing that — but he
is capable of playing any of the three (DL) positions, so that move was
one we could do easily.
Q&A continues below the
Breakout predicted: At linebacker, expect
Derrell Johnson to be a big-time playmaker.
(ECU Media Relations photo)
With Terry and Michael you have very good one-two punch at the nose, but
what about Leroy Vick? He had such a good spring a year ago, albeit
shortened with the injury. Are you expecting much out of him this
BM: He is
a young man who, gosh… talk about a body change. He has a tremendous
spirit about him. He is a kid who went into the weight room and could
only bench a little over 200 pounds and now, man, now he is at 395 or
maybe by now a little over that. We were not able to get him all the
work he needed because of some injuries but he is a guy who can be a
force in this scheme because he has some skills and at 6-6, 310 pounds,
he has good lateral quickness and punch so he will get up in there
the outside, do you look at Matt, Lee, John, and Justin (Dixon) as sort
of interchangeable, starter type guys?
are, they really all are interchangeable. Some of the guys are a little
more talented than others, but what we are asking them to do down after
down, play after play, is to execute and hold your gap and if they can
hold that wall up, our backers will plug the holes in the run game and
now your Justin Dixons, your Matt Milners, your Lee Pegues, now when
they convert off a run block or whatever, to get in the pass-rush mode,
they have enough athleticism to get to a quarterback. I think with our
depth, we will have fresher guys rest them. The NGs can play 4 and the
4s (can) play nose and that is the beauty of our defensive scheme and
that is how Marc work them.
you run an even front much last year?
BM: We did
and did it in certain situations. We were probably in a 4-man alignment
about 30 percent of the time, but we kept the principles of the 3-4 and
didn’t compromise the philosophy of the 3-4 front.
Looking at the linebacker front, starting with Johnson, who was probably
your best pressure creator on defense last year. Did you see what you
expected from him in the spring to feel good about the move?
explosive. He is a young man who Skip (Holtz) recruited as an outside
linebacker. But we didn’t have the luxury to put him there at a standup
linebacker position. But with the depth we have now, we moved him back
out there. With the skills and the type of player Derrell is, he has to
be a catalyst for us, a playmaker for us, because we are going to be in
a front that features him more times than not. He did a tremendous job
filling that role for us for the last two years while we had uncertainty
there — average play at times — but now he has an opportunity to be
fresh and with Chris Baker and Jake Geary, he is going to be a player to
be reckoned with. And, honestly, that position is one that will have to
be reckoned with because we need double-digit sacks from that Will
position as much as we bring them on a four-man pass rush. I think
Derrell with his pad level, his leverage, his love for the game, his
shear ability to get to the quarterback and make plays, will be one of
our best players out there as expected.
you see an uptick in Baker’s production given the move of Johnson to the
have, and to Chris’s credit, he did not get a spring last season and
everything we were teaching was new to him so there were moments of
hesitation out there as he tried to think through what he needed to do.
His understanding of the scheme was not where we needed it to be. Our
whole team had only been in the scheme for seven months at that point,
going into the season. We had a working understanding of how progress
and it was installed and our kids were getting the basic fundamentals
they needed. But now, it has created competition over there between
Chris and Derrell — you have to have that, you can’t just have one guy
out there. You have to have a number of guys who can go there and work.
And with what we do on third down, if a guy is athletic he is going to
have a role there in our third down package. Chris is a very athletic
young man who coming out of spring improved as much as anyone (learning
you seeing similar things from Maurice in his transition from defensive
end to OLB?
Maurice is just a true soldier. Like Derrell, we played him at DE that
first year even though he is a natural linebacker. We had him at Will
and at Sam and his hand on the ground last year, but now we have found a
home for him at the Sam position. You know when you put Maurice with
Montese Overton together, you have a great one-two package. Guys who
have power and can play over the tight end and who can blitz off the
edge and know how to play with great leverage and yet, you have a speed
demon there who can match up and play coverage all day long. But, when
you send him on the blitz, he is a force to be reckoned with. I feel
really good about Maurice and Overton, and when Gabe Woullard gets in
here, we expect more of the same thing there from him. Maurice has done
a great job and all he said when we moved him was, ‘Coach I want to help
this team.’ He is very unselfish and went about his business to have a
very, very productive spring.
I hear what you are saying. We have depth you feel real, real good about
on the defensive line and at linebacker. So are we looking at
game-by-game lineup based on opponent’s strengths and areas of weakness?
we all know it is about the matchups… scheme on scheme, yes, but if you
want a competitive edge, it is all about the individual matchups. So you
think, ‘Is Maurice more suited for this team or is Montese better
suited?’ Or, ‘Is Dixon more suited for this team that runs a one-back
and throws the ball more?’ So, yes, we have more options, weapons and
answers for what other teams are going to throw at us.
terms of Jake Geary is (it) looking like he is going to full tilt for
yeah, he is lean, he is trim. I just had a great conversation with Coach
(Jeff) Connors today about Jake. He is that blue collar kid that always,
always brings his lunch pail with him every day. All he wants to know is
‘Coach, what can I do better?’ and ‘How can I help the team?’ I think he
has progressed well from his injury and doing great things this summer.
Moving to the inside positions, you got a lot of names stacking up
there, but starting with Jeremy Grove, the frosh All-America. Do you
feel that Jeremy is equipped to avoid a sophomore slump or fall off of
his production from a year ago? Will any hype harm him, you think?
no. Jeremy is such a well-grounded young man. Look, he knows his role in
this system and what it means to be part of a collective. He understands
that no one can be the show without all the parts moving in the same
direction. He has tremendous maturity about his self and Coach (John)
Wiley will be kicking in the butt if (he changes). He is a young man you
want to be the face of your defense because he is going to be one of
your best workers, the guy trying to win every sprint and to do the same
in the classroom. He always pushes the envelope. When he was nursing the
shoulder, he was still the guy sitting in the meeting room taking notes,
sitting in film room asking Coach Wiley the questions, and doing
everything he can (to) stay sharp. There is no reason why he wouldn’t be
back to full force in fall camp. He is organizing the off-season
workouts like skelly and film study and all the things we need to do to
stay tight and stay a band of brothers to continue to improve this
Looking at Daniel Drake, Kyle Tudor, Ty Holmes, etc., with the extra
reps in the spring, did any of them separate themselves in there?
Wiley has done a great job bringing the whole group along. I mean, with
Ty in there at Mike, we really, really didn’t miss a beat. I am not
saying that Jeremy isn’t a special player at that position, but we have
guys, football wise and production wise, that are productive within this
scheme because the scheme fits our talent. We don’t need flashy guys to
be productive. I tell our guys there is a book we should all be reading
called, ‘Talent is Overrated.” When we talk about position mastery, we
talk about being an expert at your position. This book says that it
takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. Now, we don’t
have 10,000 hours, but we can give them 100,000 reps to be masters at
what we do. That is what our kids are trying to do and it doesn’t matter
if you are second or third team, each guy invested that and this is why
we were seeing Kyle, Ty, Daniel, you saw those guys flourishing because
they have that scheme knowledge and desire to master it every day.
Moving to the back end, you lost three starters which from the outside
looking in would raise a ton of flags with people saying, “They are not
going to be able to defend the pass.” Last time we talked,
before the spring, you were very
excited about the guys who will compete to fill those spots. Did spring
have you feeling better or worse?
feel, you know, there is always going to be a little apprehension until
you see them take it from the practice field to every play in the game.
But I feel good about the work I saw this past spring. I felt that
Jacobi Jenkins who has started maybe 10 games so far — I thought he
stepped up his play on the field, like he cranked up his internal clock
and just started doing tremendous things not only on the field but also
he graduated this past semester and you see the maturity and growth as a
person which allows him to keep things in alignment and not be
distracted on the field. And I thought having Adonis Armstrong here
behind him created tremendous competition each and every day on the
field. Those two guys never wanted to leave the field, both were very
productive within the scheme and complimented each other well. And even
though they were going at it every day, I saw Jacobi step up and be a
leader as if to say, this is what it takes every day to be good and
productive and he took Armstrong under his wing. That showed great
growth on Jacobi’s part because we are going to need both of those young
men this season.
Q&A continues below the
Secondary to reload: Jacobi Jenkins, left, and Lamar Ivey head
to fall as the top field corner and strong safety, respectively.
(ECU Media Relations photo)
on Armstrong, was he as impressive as you expected him to be given his
credentials and what you saw on film?
so. We knew going into recruiting — we watched him probably six
different times — and we came back with the same conclusion. ’This kid
can make plays.’ And it doesn’t matter if he didn’t look quite fast
enough, quite tall enough, or big enough, this kid is a playmaker. When
we got him here you realized that the competition he was going against
to get nine interceptions a year was pretty darn good. That young man
brought a work ethic and mentality that exudes confidence and hard work
and I couldn’t be more pleased with Armstrong as a part of what we are
looking to do back there.
on the other side, from my vantage point, looking at Leonard Paulk, it
sure seems like he really stepped up. Was that the case?
really did. You know, he stepped up there at that South Carolina game.
You are always a little hesitant in your first start and he did a
tremendous job there and all year long. Look, Emanuel (Davis) is going
to be hard to replace, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it, of
character and demeanor on the football field. Paulk is more talented but
shorter on experience. But he will gain the experience because he has a
love for the game and he understands what we are doing in this scheme.
Physically as a 5-11, 185-pound corner, he can run, jump, and hit.
also looks like he wants to be a leader on this unit. Do you see that
emerging in him at all?
of these kids, I am not asking any of them to be a leader, but rather a
productive part of the collective. Confidence exudes confidence, though,
and he is a confident young man who will be a tremendous asset to the
younger players because he has shown that he can get it done and those
young men just need to follow likewise. He has already graduated with a
3.0-plus GPA, a community service guy, a guy who can lead, (a) leader by
example. But he is an excitable kid, that is for sure.
That is true. So, Coach, who else is in the mix over there on that
Scarfone is the No. 2 coming out of spring. He is a young man who
redshirted last year. Very talented and savvy young man. He was a high
school QB and he was the most consistent guy over there even though he
was also running two other positions, nickel and the field corner. I
wanted to create competition over there and I think Rocco is able to
push Paulk and they will compliment each other as well. He is also
pushing Detric Allen who is a young man with all the talent in the
world, but his clock has not started ticking as fast as I would like it
to... but he is an athletic young man who has the chance to do some
things this fall to get himself established and possibly on the
if I am hearing you correctly, you feel good about the guys competing
for the positions, but you don’t have the proven guys yet?
I feel good about Jacobi if I had to go start — or Adonis — a guy at
field corner. I feel good about (Damon) Magz (Magazu) at free safety. I
feel good about Paulk at boundary corner. I feel great about Kris Sykes
at the Nickel and at either corner position as a guy who can be a role
player. I have guys with experience, but you need the game experience
and develop those guys who do not have enough yet. I do feel we are more
talented back there (than last year). You talk about Lamar Ivey over
there at the Cat position (strong safety). He is a young guy who had he
played last year like he did in the spring, he would have been the
starter back there over Bradley Jacobs because he is more athletic. You
can stretch the field with him and he has great football IQ. But he was
a redshirt freshman and needed to sit back and learn from the
With Ivey coming out of spring at No. 1 at the Cat, what does that say
for Godfrey Thompson, the JUCO?
held off — we call him Chip — Godfrey Thompson a little bit during
spring. Godfrey, to his credit, brought in a work ethic of toughness and
a mental component that you usually see in the senior. He is, gosh, he
is going to be physical. He is athletic, he knows how to work, he loves
this game, he loves being here at East Carolina, and at that position
those two young men are going to be formidable and it is going to take
two talented guys for us this season.
What is the word on Desi Brown?
BM: He is
another young man I have fallen in love with. Going into spring he was
one of our back-up Cats and man, you could see how much he matured and
do some fantastic things as a 6-2, 200 pound safety. He also did some
outstanding things at our outside linebacker positions to make him more
valuable to us. He is going to have a role somewhere, whether it is
third down guy or special teamer, but he is definitely a guy we will
have with us on the bus.
Desi’s a case where you guys are not sure where he is going to go with
into spring, you are not always as deep as you like at some positions.
We had days where there (were) OLBs who were in class and we needed a
guy over there and Desi would go and take reps, which just improved his
mental preparation seeing the scheme from a different perspective. But
our goal with Desi is not to move him to another position, but the Sam
and Cat should be interchangeable somewhat from the way the athlete
plays the position and from a physicality perspective. Desi is staying
at the Cat position because he is young and physical. He will eventually
compete for the starting job.
last time we talked, you said you felt uber confident about the tandem
of Mags and Justin Venable at the free safety position. Did spring
change that feeling or no?
BM: I do…
I do feel good. They are both steady and consistent. Mags is just…Mags.
He will always find a way to get it done and that is what we love so
much about him. You can’t put a value on a young man who may not look
the part but he performs the part. He has done a great job with that. He
is a coach’s kid who knows how to get it done. There is not much that
catches Damon off guard. He is that steady rock that is going to make
sure that everyone is lined up on defense and be that calming presence
on the field.
is interesting when you look at the position groups by unit, the leaders
and stars, if you will, all seem to be in the middle with Brooks, Grove,
and Mags. Is that a result of the system or do we have three very
special players there?
BM: It is
just how it happened, but if you were to build this defense from design,
that is how you would want it. You would start with the nose guard, the
Mike — or the Will, too — and Mags is the quarterback of the defense.
You want those reliable guys at those positions.
Looking a the defensive production in 2010 where you were dead last and
then in one year you cut that in half — actually better than half — what
are reasonable expectations for this year?
Nothing is going to change. We are going to continue to want to be the
best defense in this conference. We talked as a staff saying we want
take another 25 yards per game off the top. We went into last season and
said, let’s cut this in half, let’s get to 60th, and we did that.
Actually we finished 56th so we would like to cut that in half this year
and be a Top 30 defense. That is the expectation we are putting on these
kids this year. We were pretty good in the secondary last year and we
discovered some things in the run game in self analysis and through our
visits to other teams in the off-season that are going to help us there.
And just an understanding of gap integrity which is critical in this
defense. Our kids now have a great understanding of where they are
supposed to be, the weaknesses, the strengths. That is the step we took
this spring. We didn’t just teach the scheme, but we taught the ins and
outs, the strengths and weaknesses, the nuances of this defense. Our
kids have a better understanding to where they can vocalize on the field
to help in adjusting to how teams attack us.
With all of the depth you have built — and it is relatively young and
well distributed depth — is this a situation where you can start pacing
the younger guys up, guys who maybe two years ago would be pressed to
earn a spot on the depth chart?
some degree, yes. We do not want freshman to be playing. Really I don’t
know of a team in the country who wants freshmen playing unless he is a
Jadaveon Clowney type who can start as a freshman over experienced guys
from day one. We want to develop their football IQ, acclimate them to
college, and more time than not that means they will not play as a
freshman. Coming in, we were forced to play with the kids we had who
were freshman and sophomores. They now are ready and we do have depth
and we can run the system correctly. We are going to play the best guys,
but to crack our top 28 now, you are going to have to be phenomenal.
you get a sense from the kids that the collective mindset is that this
defense must be a unit that changes games, that (returns) ECU to the
days of being a feared defensive team?
BM: In any
situation, it doesn’t matter if you are the offense or special teams,
you always want to be the backbone of the team. The kids are vocalizing
this. They want to be the strength of the team. They never want to be in
that situation where we were the weak link. We want to be the strength
of the team and you can say that is prideful, but no, to be good you
have to play good defense. Our theme was, “Shut up and work.” We don’t
need the accolades and we don’t care who is watching. All we are going
to do is work.”
have some work to do, but we have many of the working parts that will
get you excited about this group. Our kids are thriving in it. I want
people to say good things about our kids. I want people to say good
things about the coaches. I could care less what people say about me,
but I want to make sure our kids are representing the university and
showing that we can play great football, have a great program and a
great head coach.
07/01/12 12:04 PM.