GREENVILLE, N.C. -- The early days of Ruffin McNeill's tenure at East Carolina featured an offense that racked up plenty of yards and points -- and a defense that gave up plenty of the same.
The Pirates' success in McNeill's fifth season could depend on whether his defense continues its steady progression of recent years despite having plenty of new starters.
"Our goal is to be better," inside linebacker Zeek Bigger said Tuesday during the team's preseason media day. "We want to be ranked higher on defense and we have to just go out there and show what we can do and what we're capable of -- and we can't wait to do it."
The Pirates managed their first 10-win season in 22 years last year in large part because they had a reliable defense to go with their always-explosive spread offense. Last year's team allowed 24.8 points and 369.2 yards per game, allowed just one team to score at least 40 points and finished with 24 takeaways -- all ECU's best totals under McNeill, according to STATS.Eight starters are gone from that unit. But McNeill said many of the new starters have enough playing experience to ease their transition into bigger roles as the Pirates make their debut in the American Athletic Conference.
McNeill was defensive coordinator under Mike Leach at Texas Tech before returning to his alma mater in 2010 and took a patient approach to recruiting the type of rangy defenders that would ultimately fit a 3-4 scheme.
East Carolina allowed an NCAA-record 572 points his first year and allowed 10 teams to score at least 40 points that season. But the unit got a little better each year, then took a big step forward after McNeill promoted secondary coach Rick Smith to defensive coordinator before last season.
The personnel losses from last year include lineman Terrell Stanley, who had seven sacks last year and will miss the season while recovering from injuries suffered in a February car wreck.
But projected starters like defensive end Johnathon White, outside linebacker Montese Overton and cornerback Josh Hawkins played in all 13 games last year. Nose tackle Terry Williams has 12 career starts. Inside linebacker Brandon Williams was fifth on the team with 69 tackles in a reserve role.
Outside linebacker Maurice Falls said the Pirates have enough talent to keep their defense moving forward.
"I get chills sometimes thinking about that first game," he said. "If you come out to practice, and you see all the players we have, the best thing about it is there are so many smiles out there. Everybody's out there just having fun. Everybody seems so relaxed. Nobody seems too stressed."
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