East Carolina University head football coach Mike Houston stood at a podium inside the Ward Sports Medicine building on Thursday morning to introduce the Pirates’ newest defensive coordinator, Blake Harrell.
Harrell, who joins the Pirates after one season at Kennesaw State University, is the second defensive coordinator in as many years after Bob Trott was let go earlier this month.
Everywhere Harrell has been, success was never too far behind. Working under Mike Houston at Lenoir-Rhyne University and the Citadel prior to joining Kennesaw State’s staff, Harrell’s defenses consistently posted outstanding numbers.
“Since I left the Citadel, I’ve followed Blake closely and I’m extremely excited about the evolution of the defensive package that he is running,” Houston said. “He has obviously proven himself both at the Citadel and at Kennesaw State to be fully capable of leading a defensive unit at a very high level. The numbers that they put up at both institutions speak for themselves.”
In 2017, under Harrell’s direction, the Citadel boasted the No. 1 scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense in the league. Across his tenure at the Citadel, Harrell’s defense incurred 83 total takeaways, and never less than 17 in a single season.
In his lone season at Kennesaw State, Harrell’s defense was statistically one of the best in the country at the FCS level. Ranked 10th in scoring defense, allowing just 18.7 points per game, his unit finished the campaign third in the nation in total defense at 278.7 yards per contest.
Taking away an opponent’s run game is a staple of Harrell’s. At every stop in his career Harrell has maintained a stout defense against the run, something ECU could vastly improve upon moving forward.
Following a rough end to the season on the defensive side of the football, the Pirates capped off the campaign allowing 49 points and 669 yards to the University of Tulsa in a 49-24 defeat. Adding a bigger sample size to that, ECU allowed over 3,400 yards combined in its final six games, an average of 571.7 yards per contest. The Pirates’ record over that sample was 1-5, locking them into a 4-8 record in the first year under Houston.
Of the 469.3 yards ECU’s defensive unit allowed per game in 2019, 207.8 came on the ground. Against a thin defensive line that featured three graduating seniors, and a linebacker corps that was forced to deal with injuries, opponents had their way with the Pirates down the stretch.
“It’s an exciting challenge. Been with coach Houston at several stops and I wholeheartedly believe in what he’s done, he’s won everywhere he’s been,” Harrell said. “That was an easy decision for me, it was like ‘coach Houston is doing the right things, he’s going to get it turned, I’m excited to be here with him helping that vision in getting this thing turned.’”
Helping to rectify that with a defensive-minded approach to early signing day, Houston further filled that hole by hiring Harrell.
At Kennesaw State in 2019, Harrell’s unit allowed only 88.9 rushing yards per game, the fifth best mark in the FCS while holding opponents to less than 200 yards each time out, on average. Additionally, Kennesaw State recovered 12 fumbles and allowed only 77 rushing first downs on its way to an 11-3 campaign.
A year older and under new leadership, the Pirates’ defense is primed to take a leap forward in 2020. Still relatively young, especially along the defensive line, ECU does have some older players who will be looked upon to make an impact next season.
Junior inside linebacker Xavier Smith, senior inside linebacker Bruce Bivens and senior defensive lineman Chance Purvis all earned significant playing time in 2019 and figure to be cornerstones of the Pirates’ front seven in 2020.
“When you turn on the film, I want you to say ‘those guys play with championship effort, championship toughness. They play fast, they play physical,’” Harrell said about his defense as a whole.
On the backend, the Pirates return standout defensive back Ja’Quan McMillian, senior defensive back Davondre Robinson and redshirt freshman defensive back Juan Powell. As a freshman last season, McMillian logged 38 tackles while recording 12 passes defensed, three interceptions and a forced fumble.
Robinson was a force as well, racking up 71 tackles, three interceptions and a fumble recovery in 12 games played during his junior campaign.
Other key returners on the defensive side include senior outside linebacker Warren Saba, junior defensive back Daniel Charles, senior insider linebacker Aaron Ramseur (recovering from injury) and senior defensive lineman Hozey Haji-Badri.
“I’m committed to build this program to a consistent winner and put a product on the field defensive that we can be proud of,” Harrell said. “My family is excited to get here, as coach Houston mentioned, got three girls, so excited to them up here in this community and just be a part of Greenville.”