Blake Harrell’s first season as a defensive coordinator in college football’s bowl subdivision is at East Carolina, which regrouped during a most unprecedented offseason and after finishing 119th in the nation a year ago in total defense.
The Pirates return experience and talent in their secondary, but will have a brand new look to their D-Line. Transfer players also have been infused into the roster.
ECU’s first preseason practice is scheduled for Friday morning. Here are three questions about the defense:
1. How fast can Harrell teach?
One of the most obvious questions and concerns about the entire ECU preseason is how costly it was to not have spring practices with Harrell in charge and not able to evaluate his personnel in real time.
A bonus did come recently with revamped mandatory workouts featuring time allotted by the NCAA for meetings and film sessions with coordinators and position coaches present. Those sessions surely were valuable for Harrell, who came to ECU from Kennesaw State in January, and for some of the Pirates’ younger players. Kennesaw State ranked third in total defense at the FCS level and fifth in rush defense in 2019.
Another bonus is the the top two tacklers from last season are active for the Pirates — linebacker Xavier Smith and safety Tank Robinson — and cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian is an All-American Athletic Conference candidate after a standout freshman campaign with three interceptions and a team-high nine pass breakups. How quickly the Pirates’ best defenders gravitate to Harrell’s practice coaching style and help with bringing other players along will be key for a defense hoping to make strides.
2. What role best fits Powell?
Freshman Juan Powell bounced back from a preseason off-the-field incident last year to serve as a bright spot during the final four games. He made an impact in the secondary, yet he still doesn’t have a defined position heading into his redshirt freshman campaign.
Whether Powell fits best as a safety or a cornerback might depend on the impact of Alabama transfer Nigel Knott, who is a true corner listed at 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds. Whether it is Powell or Knott, both who posses plenty of talent, or somebody else, a steady starter as the Pirates’ No. 2 cornerback will only help McMillian and his development.
3. Where’s the pass rush?
ECU’s starting defense line all last season consisted of Kendall Futrell, Chance Purvis, Jalen Price and Alex Turner. None of them remain at ECU, setting the stage for a new wave of starters and impact players.
Hozey Haji-Badri and Chris Willis are seniors with college experience, just not much at East Carolina. Willis transferred in as a grad student from Appalachian State. Junior college transfer Henry Garrison also has immediate impact potential as a pass-rusher at 6-6 and 265 pounds.
Redshirt freshman Traveon Freshwater or one of the true rookies could thrive as a surprise inside rusher, or the Pirates could rely on any new blitz schemes concocted by Harrell.
Futrell produced 11 sacks last year as a senior. He led a unit that totaled 23 sacks, and East Carolina’s offense allowed 17.