GREENVILLE — David Blackwell was the coordinator of a Jacksonville State defense that ranked first nationally at the FCS level over the past four seasons. He left the job in December to become the coordinator of an East Carolina defense that, at least statistically, was the worst in the FBS last year.
It’s a career move that begs an obvious question.
“Because I look at it as a great opportunity,” said Blackwell, an ECU graduate who was a member of the Pirates’ Peach Bowl championship team of 1992. “There’s nowhere to go but up.”
That’s not an exaggeration. ECU’s defense was so bad last season that its original coordinator, Kenwick Thompson, was relieved of his duties after just two games.
Things didn’t get any better under his interim replacement, Robert Prunty. The Pirates gave up 52 or more points six times in nine losses, including an embarrassing 70 in the season finale at Memphis. Their 11 sacks were the second fewest in the nation.
For the season, ECU ranked 129th out of 129 FBS teams allowing an average of 45 points and 541 yards per game.
“We do have to change the perception,” Blackwell said. “We were the worst in the country.”
In order to keep that from happening again — and take steps to save his own job — head coach Scottie Montgomery completely restructured his defensive staff.
In addition to hiring Blackwell to run that side of the ball, he also brought in Daric Riley from SMU to work with the Pirates’ safeties and Rodrique Wright from Sam Houston State to coach the defensive line.
As excited as Montgomery is about his new defensive leadership and its ability to make the necessary improvements to return ECU to respectability, he’s keeping his expectations modest. When asked what he’s looking for from his defense, he said simply to hold opponents “to one point less than the offense.”
Blackwell, on the other hand, has set the bar much higher than that.
“I don’t talk about negatives,” he said. “I expect us to be a great defense. We know what people say. I’m as much a part of it as they are.”
Blackwell’s goal of a dramatic turnaround isn’t just wishful thinking.
He saw former ECU defensive coordinator Larry Coyer fashion a similar rebuild during an earlier tenure with the Pirates in the early 1990s, then led one of his own by transforming Fordham’s defense from the “worst in the nation” to one that helped produce a 12-2 season just two years later.
Despite the dismal numbers, Blackwell said that ECU’s defense is hardly devoid of talent or motivation. He pointed to defensive end Kendall Futrell, linebacker Aaron Ramseur and veteran defensive backs Colby Gore, Devon Sutton, Colby Gore and Tim Irvin as potential standouts.
Instead of bogging those players down by adding wrinkles and giving them too many things to think about, as has been done in the past, the new Pirates coordinator said the key to improvement is keeping things as simple as possible. That’s why he’s spent a majority of preseason camp working on and perfecting ECU’s base defense.
Although it’s yet to be seen how things play out once the games begin in two weeks against NC A&T, Blackwell is encouraged by what he’s seen — and heard — so far in practice. He said that when he asks one of his players a question about alignment, responsibility or some other aspect of the defense, instead of confusion he gets a succinct answer usually word-for-word as it was taught in the meeting room.
“We’re attacking the knowledge part of the game,” Ramseur said.
That’s a major step in the right direction, according to Blackwell.
“Confidence comes with knowledge,” he said. “One of the biggest disconnects we’ve had is there was nothing anybody really, truly believed in.
“Sometimes people perceive a lack of effort from a guy that might be confused. Confused players don’t play very fast. We want to give our players the ability to play as fast as they can. With that, there’s a confidence in knowing what you’re doing.”
It’s a transformation senior linebacker Cannon Gibbs said is already well underway.
“There’s been a cultural change going on,” he said. “When I say cultural, I’m talking all the way from top to bottom from Coach (Montgomery) to the new guys. Everybody’s bought in. We have the same focus, the same vision and we’re going to attack the same goals.”