GREENVILLE – The football perception, generally, is that when an established star player vacates his position, a recovery process begins while the new starter tries to figure out how to replace him.
East Carolina might not have that problem at one position this season.
As great of an impact as Derrell Johnson had on the Pirates as a four-year starter first at defensive end and later at outside linebacker, that impact might have only delayed slightly the rise of rising junior outside linebacker Montese Overton.
Playing behind Johnson the last two seasons, Overton was not the player opposing teams wanted to see coming in with the Pirates’ second linebacker unit, as he didn’t hand out too many free passes.
In fact, he had one of the bigger, more offensively disruptive campaigns of anyone other than Johnson as a sophomore, making 50 tackles and hounding opponents for 10.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and two forced fumbles, all while Johnson was taking a breather.
Now, he’s a starter.
“Coming to college is all about waiting your turn,” said Overton, who starred locally at Winterville South Central High School. “Derrell is a phenomenal football player and I actually look up to him like my big brother. He taught me a couple of things on and off the field, what needed to be done.”
Prior to being signed as a free agent by the Miami Dolphins in June, Johnson finished a banner senior season with the Pirates that featured team highs in tackles (80), tackles for loss (14), sacks (eight) and quarterback hurries (nine).
Right behind him in all of those categories was Overton, a former Daily Reflector Defensive Player of the Year when he was a South Central senior, who said the learning process was constant around Johnson.
“Just by him being there and me being in his presence, I picked up a lot of things like mental toughness, how to get to the ball, things like staying in the film room and making sure I do all the little things.”
Under coordinator Rick Smith, ECU surged last season from near the bottom of the nation statistically to being among the top 25 in rush defense, sacks and red zone defense.
Although athletes are taught to ignore stats, those numbers serve as proof of the ECU defense’s drastic improvement, which has brought with it a renewed belief as the team embarks on play in the American Athletic Conference this season.
“The media and other teams, bigger teams, didn’t think we could play with them or run with them, but to see that our defense was actually ranked (in the top 25), that kind of took the chip off our shoulder a little bit and built our confidence,” Overton said. “We know we can play with anybody in this new league.”
The Pirates, who open with N.C. Central on Aug. 30th, wore shells for the first time on the steamiest day of camp yet on Wednesday, and the result was a physical day, fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill said.
“That’s how we practice here, and it’s one of the most physical parts,” McNeill said. “There’s a misconception that you’ve got to have full gear on, but we practice physical here every day.”
In terms of implementing his overall team goals, McNeill said it was a work in progress.
“We’ve still got to keep working toward reaching that team concept to make the team better … and we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “It’s not magic.”