GREENVILLE — While most of the attention has been on the ECU Pirates’ high-octane offense, an inexperienced defensive group is focusing on improvement.
Tulsa carved up the ECU defense for nearly 600 yards in the season-opener. Despite the ECU win, that’s way too many yards for Pirates’ senior defensive back Travis Simmons.
The Pirates (1-0) are hoping for a better performance Saturday when they host Memphis.
“We are have been practicing and working hard. We were pretty disappointed with the way things turned out, but I give a lot of credit to Tulsa,” said Simmons, who had six tackles and an interception against Tulsa. “We definitely want to come out this week and put together a much better effort and performance.”
While Simmons and senior cornerback Emanuel Davis are the only returning defensive starters from last season’s Conference USA Championship team, the rest of the Pirates either didn’t play or played limited snaps.
Simmons and Davis have inherited the leadership responsibilities this season,
“We have just been trying to be leaders this year,” Simmons said. “We are the only starters back from last year. We are trying to pick up the leadership role for the younger guys, but it’s been fun to be looked up to.”
The next step to improvement is against the Memphis Tigers, who dropped a 49-7 game to Mississippi State last Saturday.
On paper, Memphis may not look intimidating, but Simmons sees athleticism at wide receiver with Jermaine McKenzie and 6-foot-4 Marcus Rucker.
Memphis played two quarterbacks in the opener, but University of Miami transfer Cannon Smith appears to be the front-runner to direct the offense against ECU.
“They are a very physical team,” Simmons said. “They run their scheme’s great and they have some tall receivers and the quarterback throws a pretty good ball. So we are expecting them to come out with a pretty aggressive offense.”
One advantage the Pirates defense has is battling against a fast-faced, spread-formation offense every day in practice.
“Just seeing them with the up-tempo style they bring to practice and going up against them in practice, it gets us better,” Simmons said. “Our receivers are very fast and they catch a lot of passes. They give us great looks every day, so that when we get to the games, we are prepared.”
The Pirates’ offense got off to an impressive start, as they put up 538 yards and seven touchdowns.
Senior running back Jonathan Williams contributed with 92 rushing yards and junior quarterback Dominique Davis tossed for 383 yards and five touchdowns.
“We are expecting the offense to do that every week,” Williams said. “We know what we can do and we’ve got the talent to do it. We just need to point some points up on that board.”
Memphis’ defense allowed Mississippi State to gain 569 yards on offense (372 pass, 197 run). Linebacker Jamon Hughes led the Tigers with nine tackles and a sack, while defensive back Marcus Ball recorded eight tackles and linebacker Terrence Thomas has an interception.
“They are very athletic on defense and they have great size,” Davis said. “We want to get better every week. If we have 600 yards this week, we are going to try to shoot for 700 yards next week.”
Although the challenge of scoring often against Memphis doesn’t look too daunting, Williams said the Pirates shouldn’t look past their current opponent; especially with a trip to Virginia Tech awaiting next week.
“Anybody can win on any day,” Williams said. “We have to come out with our A-game, don’t get complacent, come out there and play hard. We aren’t going to worry about what they did last week or what we did last week.”
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Written by Adam Thompson