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Football Recruiting Report
Thursday, February 20, 2014

By Sammy Batten

Recruiting report card: Defense

Potential playmakers may see action early

Recruiting Class of 2014 Thumbnail Sketches...

By Sammy Batten
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East Carolina went from being one of the worst to the one of the better defensive teams in the nation during the 2013 season under the direction of new coordinator Rick Smith.

Ranked 87th nationally in total defense in 2012 after giving up an average of 430.7 yards per game, the Pirates rose to 30th last season with an average of 363.2 yards. The dramatic improvement was no doubt a key factor in producing the second-highest win total (10) in school history.

But with some major graduation losses that claimed seven starters and some valuable reserves, ECU had to devote significant space in the recruiting Class of 2014 for defensive prospects to continue the progress made last season.

Coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff didn't disappoint by signing up 11 high school defenders and a gray-shirted recruit, while also adding a former top prep prospect via transfer.

Here's a position-by-position report and grade on the defensive class, a look at who's returning and some speculation on what the Pirates' priorities may be for in the recruiting Class of 2015.

DEFENSIVE END B-

WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates went into the 2013 shorthanded at end due to the transfer of John Lattimore to North Alabama and the unexpected decision by 22-game starter Matt Milner to forego his final year of eligibility due to a hip problem. Two other ends were expected to complete their eligibility after the 2013 season, so signing three or four ends seemed like the goal.

WHO SIGNED: Alex Evans (6-6, 215) was a three-year letterwinner at Springbrook High in Silver Spring, MD, where he made 70 tackles as a senior. Evans also entertained an offer from Old Dominion. Shaun James is a 6-4, 235-pounder from Virginia Beach, VA, and Green Run High School. The Virginian-Pilot newspaper named James to the first-team All-Beach District team as a senior. Hampton, James Madison and Marshall also offered James. Although he didn't sign yet, you can also include another Virginia Beach product, Tony Baird, on this list. Baird (6-3, 210), from Ocean Lakes High School, enjoyed an incredible senior season in which he made 132 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 17 sacks. He accepted an offer from ECU to "gray shirt,'' which means he'll delay his enrollment until January 2015. He chose the Pirates over an offer from Navy.

HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: The Pirates landed three extremely athletic, albeit raw talents in Baird, Evans, James. All are tall, rangy players who should develop into strong pass rushers, but need to mature physically before they're ready to take the field for ECU. However, the Pirates may actually need to rush Evans and James into action next fall. The tragic car accident earlier this month that resulted in serious injuries to starting defensive end Terrell Stanley and the graduation of starter Lee Pegues could force the freshmen into backup roles at end if veterans don't step up to fill the voids.

BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Although a number of highly ranked ends were offered by ECU, the interest never materialized. Plus, the Pirates secured their main guys here early in Evans and James. Baird was a bonus when he joined the group in January with a commitment.

WHO'S BACK: As mentioned above, rising junior Terrell Stanley suffered serious injuries in a car accident in early February and his status for the 2014 season remains uncertain. That's a shame, too, because Stanley really emerged as one of ECU's best last season when he started 12 of 13 games and made 46 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Three others with significant experience must step forward to fill the void for graduated starter Lee Pegues and for Stanley, if he can't return. Junior Johnathan White played in 13 games and logged one start last season while making 22 tackles and two sacks. Massive walk-on Fred Pressley (6-3, 323) was Pegues backup for the bowl game, but is probably better suited to the nose tackle position. He'll be a sophomore next season after appearing in 11 games and making 19 tackles as a freshman. Junior Jeton Beavers is another possbility, but only if he can overcome the injury bug that's stalled his career. A tall, athletic rush end, Beavers only played one game last season before being sidelined with a back injury, and his status for spring practice is unknown at this point. More potential help could come from Class of 2013 signee Randall Anderson, who was redshirted last season.

WHO'S GONE: Lee Pegues played a prominent role on ECU's defense for four straight seasons. He was an all conference honorable mention performer as a junior, then capped his career by making 29 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season. Also completing his eligibility was Justin Dixon, who came to ECU with great promise, but saw his career devastated by multiple injuries.

NEED FOR 2015: Currently, no players on the roster at end are scheduled to complete their eligibility after the 2014 season. The oldest of the group, Stanley and White, will only be juniors next fall. Still, with Stanley's status uncertain and the possibility that a younger end or two may not be around come spring means signing at least three here would be a good move.

NOSE TACKLE A

WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates are well stocked at nose tackle with talent and experience, so there wasn't an immediate need to sign anyone.

WHO SIGNED: Although he technically didn't join the Pirates as part of the recruiting Class of 2013, K'Hadree Hooker may well turn out to be one of the most significant additions made to the roster by the coaching staff over the past year. Hooker transferred to ECU last August from N.C. State, where he originally signed with the Class of 2012. But after spending a year in Raleigh, the resident of the Deep Run community near Kinston decided to take his act back closer to home. He sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules and should be eligible to compete for playing time this spring. Hooker was rated the nation's No. 33 defensive tackle prospect out of South Lenoir High School as a senior and had offers from Arkansas, Auburn, Duke, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech.

HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: If nothing else, Hooker will provide depth at the nose tackle spot. But we expect even more in the long run. Hooker is the kind of strong, wide-body athlete who usually requires two people to block him in the middle of the defensive front. If he's ready to go in the spring and plays as well as we think he's capable, he could wind up as the starter or top backup at nose tackle, which would allow the Pirates to use Chrishon Rose more at end where they're not as deep.

BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: DeShaywn Middleton from Winston-Salem's Parkland High was rated the nation's No. 39 defensive tackle prospect by Rivals.com, and in June said he'd narrowed his list to the Pirates and Appalachian State. But sometime between then and the middle of July, N.C. State made a big play for Middleton and gained his commitment.

WHO'S BACK: Chrishon Rose was the starter at nose tackle for most of the season, due in part to a September suspension of returning starter Terry Williams. Rose, who can also play defensive end, made 31 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks while making 10 starts over 13 games. Williams, a senior next fall, returned to play in the final two games against Marshall and Ohio after starting the first three contests before the suspension. He made 15 tackles and one tackle for loss in limited play. One of the real pleasant surprises for ECU was the play of true freshman Demitri McGill, who moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart at nose tackle when Williams was suspended. McGill played in nine games and was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman squad. Redshirt freshman Mike Myers is a short, but stout-playing nose tackle candidate who impressed in preseason practice a year ago and came close to seeing action. Don't be surprised to see 6-3, 323-pound walk-on Fred Presley operating out of the middle more next fall, too.

WHO'S GONE: No players who saw time at nose guard completed their eligibility in 2013.

NEED FOR 2015: Position changes could alter the need, but with both Rose and Williams finishing their ECU careers in 2014, recruiting at least one possible replacement is necessary and signing two wouldn't be overacting.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER B+

WHAT THEY NEEDED: Practically every ECU recruiting class is going to see at least two signed at the outside positions each year. But with two starters graduating after 2013, and another two scholarship players departing after 2014, two or more were the objective.

WHO SIGNED: Yiannis Bowden is a 6-5, 215-pounder from Glenn High in Kernersville, NC, who also had scholarship offers from Ball State, N.C. A&T and Old Dominion. Bowden made 82 tackles and had seven tackles for loss as a senior. Massaddiq Walton (6-3, 245) from Ocean Lakes High in Virginia Beach was a two-time selection to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper's All-Beach District first team. Walton also was offered by Navy. Markel Winters (6-3, 226) is from Rickards High in Tallahassee, FL. Winters was a late addition to the ECU class, committing just a 48 hours before national signing day. He had 74 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and nine sacks as a senior at Rickards. Central Florida, Florida Atlantic, Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, Northern Illinois, Old Dominion, South Florida, Tennessee State and Western Kentucky were others that offered Winters, who could also wind up playing defensive end for the Pirates.

HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Bowden and Walton are both tall, fast athletes, but both will require time to develop their football knowledge and physical strength. Winters is a physical player who plays with attitude. He's not in the same class as Bowden and Walton speed-wise, but he covers a lot more ground than his 40-yard dash time indicates.

BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Kalin McNeil from Northeast Guilford High near Greensboro, NC, wasn't exactly a "big'' fish, but he was certainly good enough that ECU offered a scholarship soon after a junior year in which he racked up 138 tackles. McNeil narrowed his list of college choices to the Pirates and Wake Forest, before choosing to join the Demon Deacons with a commitment last July.

WHO'S BACK: The Pirates have a wealth of experience and talent at the outside positions, despite losing both 2013 starters to graduation. Rising seniors Maurice Falls and Jake Geary, junior Montese Overton and sophomores Davon Pratt, Devaris Brunson and Reece Speight all appeared in games last season. Falls, who has made three starts during his ECU career, played in 12 games last year as a reserve, making 15 tackles and an interception. Geary also started games early in his career before a serious ankle injury derailed his progress. He entered the 2013 fall camp expected to compete with Derrell Johnson and Falls for playing time, but wound up seeing action in just four games due to a knee injury. Overton saw the most playing time on defense of the returnees and made 50 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in 13 games as a backup. Pratt (nine games) and Speight (4) were also used as reserves and on special teams. Then there was Brunson, a future defensive star in my book, who unselfishly agreed to move to offense last year to help provide some depth at running back. He played in 11 games between the two positions, but we're betting he's back working at outside linebacker by spring practice. Hoping to overcome the back and knee issues that have kept him off the field the last two seasons is sophomore Drayvon Fairley, while redshirt freshmen Kirk Donaldson and Pat Green will be trying to make their mark this spring.

WHO'S GONE: The guy Ruffin McNeill believes is a sure-fire NFL linebacker, Derrell Johnson. Johnson was second-team All-C-USA pick as a senior after making 80 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and eight sacks, the latter two figures which led the Pirates. Departing with Johnson is Gabe Woullard, the starter on the opposite side who made 44 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

NEED FOR 2015: Falls and Geary complete their eligibility in 2014, but that doesn't mean signing two is critical because of the depth and youth already on campus at the positions. But bringing in at least one outside guy is to be expected.

INSIDE LINEBACKER B

WHAT THEY NEEDED: The inside positions in the 3-4 were a big priority for the Pirates because two of the six scholarship players on the roster were seniors in 2013 and two more are on schedule to graduate after 2014. The Pirates also lost an inside guy with great potential before preseason practice began last season when Tristan Mumford decided to leave school after the spring semester. Mumford, who many recruiting analyst considered the jewel of ECU's recruiting Class of 2013, was already third on the depth chart at one inside position as a true freshman after spring practice. So essentially a restocking of this position was required, which meant two or three signees.

WHO SIGNED: Joe Carter, from Ponte Vedra High in Florida, produced 75 tackles, one sack and blocked a punt as a senior. Carter turned down offers from Air Force, Appalachian State and UAB to sign with the Pirates. Kyron Speller enjoyed a stellar senior year at Kempsville High in Virginia Beach, VA, making 65 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and blocking three kicks. Speller was twice named to the Virginian-Pilot's All-Beach District team. Army, James Madison and Navy also offered Speller. Ray Tillman of Miller Grove High in Lithonia, GA, was named the 2013 Class 6-AAAAA Defensive Player of the Year by the Atlanta Journal Constitution after making 62 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Illinois, Indiana, Marshall, Middle Tennessee State, Mississippi, Syracuse and Tennessee were others that offered Tillman.

HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: ECU landed three distinctly different athletes inside. Carter is one of those guys who doesn't do anything spectacular but is steadily making plays. Speller is the strong man, capable of overpowering blockers with his strength. Tillman is the lean, fast athlete who plays a lot tougher than his 193-pound size might suggest. Any of the three could make an impact on special teams next fall, but the Pirates do appear to have enough depth inside at this point to redshirt them all.

BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: There really didn't appear to be one since ECU signed three of the four it apparently offered at the position.

WHO'S BACK: A 2012 All-C-USA pick, Jeremy Grove collected 205 tackles through his first two seasons as a Pirate before a chest injury put him on the sidelines early in the 2013 campaign. The situation limited him to nine games and just three starts last season in which he still made 41 tackles. Grove will be back for his senior year in 2014 and a return to form would benefit ECU in performance and leadership. The injuries to Grove and Kyle Tudor opened the door for Zeek Bigger to have a breakout season in 2013. Bigger ranked third on the team in tackles (77), had 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as a sophomore. He's the most likely candidate to team with a healthy Grove at the two inside spots. Rising senior Brandon Williams, who also made three starts in 13 games, could have something to say about that since he produced 69 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. Another senior, Desi Brown, will be back after appearing in 11 games, mostly on special teams.

WHO'S GONE: Kyle Tudor missed some time early, but bounced back to start 11 games. Tudor collected 69 tackles and three tackles for loss. Ty Holmes was No. 3 on the season-ending depth chart at one inside spot and made 16 tackles in 11 games.

NEED FOR 2015: Despite signing three this time around, there is still a significant need to be filled. Two additional inside linebackers in the Class of 2015 would give them five underclassmen in the program, so maybe signing three is a better number.

SAFETY C+

WHAT THEY NEEDED: About this time last year we expected the secondary emphasis to be on cornerback and that maybe the Pirates "might'' take two safeties in the recruiting class. But when a third senior outside the two starters started playing a prominent role in 2013, the numbers needed shifted to something higher.

WHO SIGNED: Blake Norwood from Pensacola, FL, was actually part of the 2013 recruiting class, but delayed his enrollment until January 2014. He chose the Pirates over offers from South Alabama and Western Michigan. Cody Purdie was a major contributor at one of North Carolina’s top prep programs at New Bern High. After making 143 tackles for the unbeaten 4-A state champs as a junior, he switched to offense as a senior and rushed for 1,317 yards. ECU was the first and only major school to offer Purdie. Drew Turnage is another fairly local product from just outside Greenville in Ayden, NC. Like Purdie, he was a two-way player at Ayden-Grifton High School where he scored 17 touchdowns as a running back and made 47 tackles on defense as a senior. ECU was also his lone offer.

HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Because Norwood and Purdie are already enrolled and will participate in spring practice, they’ll immediately be available to provide much needed depth at safety. Norwood is a ballhawking center-fielder type safety, while Purdie plays the position with the mentality of a linebacker. Turnage is an all-around athlete who could handle either safety position.

BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: East Carolina was the first major program to step up with an offer to Dexter Wright, who played just up the road from Greenville at Wilson’s Hunt High School. But before the Pirates or anyone else could get serious with their recruitment of Wright he committed to N.C. State in June.

WHO’S BACK: Rising junior Dominique Lennon was the No. 2 free safety last season when he appeared in 10 games and made eight tackles. Beyond that, only walk-on sophomores Nate Mays (10 games) and Terrell Richardson (eight games, 6 tackles) return with playing experience at safety. One shift expected to strengthen the depth at safety this spring will be the move of rising sophomore DeShaun Amos from cornerback to safety. Amos, of course, made a name for himself by returning an interception 100 yards for a touchdown to finish off a victory against Tulsa last season. As a true freshman he appeared in all 13 games for the Pirates and made 15 tackles. Another converted cornerback, redshirt freshman Travon Simmons, could also be in the mix at safety as could redshirt freshman Xavier Smith.

WHO'S GONE: A three-year starter at free safety and four-year letterwinner in Damon Magazu and two-year starter at strong safety Chip Thompson finished their college careers. Magazu logged 37 starts over the last four seasons and was widely regarded as one of the Pirates' team leaders. He ranked second in team tackles last season with 80 and was first in interceptions with five. Thompson started 23 games over the last two years and enjoyed a stellar senior season with 57 tackles and two interceptions. A third prominent member of the secondary, Michael Dobson, also completed his eligibility after piling up 42 tackles in 13 games.

NEED FOR 2015: ECU is going to need some quick help at safety from the Class of 2015, so don't be surprised if a junior college guy or two crops pops up on the recruiting radar in the coming months. Signing at least two safeties would be a good bet.

CORNERBACK B-

WHAT THEY NEEDED: The Pirates had only one veteran corner scheduled to depart after the 2013 season, but two more are set to leave at the end of 2014. The need was probably at least two, and signing three would have put them ahead of the game.

WHO SIGNED: Corey Seargent helped Northwestern High in Rock Hill, SC, claim the 2013 state title. Seargent was named The Spartanburg Herald's Defensive Player of the Year after leading his team with 148 tackles and making four interceptions. Appalachian State, Charlotte, Kansas and Kansas State also offered Seargent.

HOW ECU HELPED ITSELF: Seargent is a bigger, aggressive corner who likes to hit. His playing speed is better than his 40 time would indicate and he's a proven winner. If injuries start to crop up at cornerback next season, Seargent could jump in and play. But ECU would probably prefer to redshirt him next fall.

BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY: When Daiquan Lawrence from Western Branch High in Chesapeake, VA, began wavering on a verbal commitment to Wake Forest in early December, the Pirates jumped in with an offer. Lawrence even stated he was going to schedule an official visit to Greenville sometime in January, but instead detoured to Winston-Salem for a visit instead and wound up re-committing to the Demon Deacons.

WHO'S BACK: Well, the Pirates are apparently deep enough at the corner positions to allow Deshaun Amos to move over to safety for spring practice. Rising senior Detric Allen returns at one corner where he started nine times in 13 games last season. Allen is a bigger corner and a tremendous athlete who was in on 40 tackles in 2013. Allen actually took over for Josh Hawkins, who was a starter before suffering a scary concussion against Virginia Tech. Still, Hawkins appeared in all 13 games, made four starts, 40 tackles and an interception. Senior Lamar Ivey (12 games, 10 tackles), junior Rocco Scarfone and sophomore DaShawn Benton (11 games, 10 tackles) are others who return with game experience. Scarfone didn't play any last season, but appeared in 12 games on special teams and in the secondary as a redshirt freshman in 2012.

WHO'S GONE: Adonis Armstrong developed into a quality corner and enjoyed two solid seasons as a starter after transferring in from the junior college ranks. He started all 13 games last season, making 48 tackles and two interceptions.

NEED FOR 2015: Taking two or three to replace potential graduates appears to be the number to sign at cornerback.

OVERALL DEFENSIVE GRADE B

Coach Ruff and company landed an above average class with lots of potential playmakers, including some who could see action as true freshmen.

OVERALL OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE CLASS GRADE B

McNeill has built East Carolina's depth to the point that he doesn't have to bring in a ton of junior college players to fill immediate needs. That is allowing the Pirates to recruit more high school players who can develop and spend three or even four years contributing to the program. The Class of 2014 is exactly that — a group of raw, but talented football players, most of whom can be redshirted and allowed to mature for a year before they need to contribute.

E-mail Sammy Batten

PAGE UPDATED 02/19/14 09:15 PM.

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