GREENVILLE – East Carolina defensive end Lee Pegues remembers the long afternoons during his freshman year when opponents would run over the Pirates’ defense with ease. That’s what makes East Carolina’s strong start against the run so satisfying.
After giving up an NCAA-record 572 points during coach Ruffin McNeill’s first season, East Carolina ranks 10th nationally by holding opponents to 82.3 yards rushing per game heading into Saturday’s trip to North Carolina.
“Really, it’s all just motivation,” said Pegues, now a senior. “When you think back about how we struggled up in the front seven, it’s all motivation now. Everything you do from there on is just working to get better.”
While it’s only a three-game sample for 2013, it’s a promising start for defensive coordinator Rick Smith.
Smith is in his second stint as an assistant here, returning in January to take over for fired coordinator Brian Mitchell.
He inherited a defense that made incremental improvement the past two seasons but still struggled to make stops consistently. McNeill told Smith he wanted to stay with the 3-4 scheme even though Smith had used a 4-3 alignment during his past stints as a defensive coordinator.
“Offenses will spread so much around the field, they’ll get some runs,” McNeill said. “What we did better in the second and third game was our run-gap integrity – everybody understanding what their job was and doing it at a good pace and doing it the right way.”
East Carolina (2-1) is coming off a 15-10 home loss to Virginia Tech, but the Pirates held the Hokies to 53 yards on 34 carries – good for a 1.6-yard average. For the season, opponents are averaging 2.7 yards per carry, about half of what they were during that demoralizing 2010 season.
That year, East Carolina allowed teams to average 226.7 yards per game and 5.3 yards per rush.
North Carolina averages 92 yards rushing per game this season.
“They’ve done a really nice job,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said of East Carolina’s improved play against the run. “They’re basing out of the 3-4 more, you see multiple blitzes, a lot of twisting, a lot of different things with the guys up front. They’re really heavy inside. They’ve adapted well to what they are doing now.”
The Pirates are facing a UNC team still searching for a consistent way to replace star tailback Gio Bernard, who headed to the NFL after last season. So far, Romar Morris and A.J. Blue have combined to average 92 yards rushing per game, about 30 yards fewer than Bernard.
Smith said stopping the run has been the No. 2 emphasis, behind forcing turnovers, on the defensive coaches’ top-five list for players to focus on during games. So far, at least, his Pirates defenders are listening.
“They’re running to the football,” Smith said. “They are straining and playing as a team. I think when you get 11 guys that are playing hard together, that are straining on every play ... it’ll clear up a lot of mistakes.”