The ECU defense was a land of opportunity during Kurt Nichols’ first spring as head football coach.

Nichols wiped the slate clean when he took the job in December, and he gave everybody on the roster a shot to impress him over the past four weeks. But nowhere was there a greater chance for advancement than on defense.

With only three starters returning from a unit that struggled early but played well late in the 2005 season, the defense was loaded with question marks when spring practice began on March 27. As Saturday’s Orange and White Game approached, though, most of those questions had been answered.

ECU’s defensive secondary, which returned only all-conference free safety Cody Fagan, has, with the exception of a four-touchdown outburst in the first half of last Thursday’s second scrimmage (a breakdown that was corrected in the second half), been solid all spring. But the players who have made the biggest impression — and in surprisingly large numbers — have been up front.

The Tigers lost three of four starters on the defensive line, with tackle Charles Cohee the only returnee, and no team in the Lone Star Conference took as big a hit at linebacker as ECU, which had to replace all-conference performers Keith Edwards and James Callins from a unit that was one of the league’s best last fall.

If this spring has proven anything, though, it has shown that the ECU front seven is, with the exception of wide receiver, deeper in talent than anywhere on either side of the ball and could lead a defensive rebirth for the Tigers this fall.

“So far we look pretty good,” all-conference linebacker Andrew O’Neill said after Tuesday’s practice. “The new guys and the young guys have really stepped up this spring.

“All of the linebackers have been doing an excellent job,” he added. “Our 3’s (third team) have played well when they’ve been in there, and the 2’s are just as good as the 1’s. They could go in and start.”

O’Neill and Fagan were the only returning starters on either side of the ball whose jobs were safe when the spring began, and Cohee has solidified his spot up front with a good camp. Sophomore Leon Ames has moved over from offense to take Edwards’ spot at middle linebacker, Stephen Marshall has been a force at the other outside linebacker, and the Tigers’ tackle rotation has dominated the line of the scrimmage all spring against a relatively inexperienced group of offensive linemen who are still looking for an identity and remain the team’s biggest question mark heading in the Saturday’s spring finale.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the progress we’ve made (up front) this spring,” ECU defensive coordinator Todd Fugett said.  “We’re more athletic and deeper at the tackle position than we were last fall. Charles Cohee is a better football player than he was last season, and Corey Roberts, Cedric Cofer and Kevin Roach have all had good springs.

“Winford Hood and James Henderson are in a dead heat at one defensive end, and Demarcus Young, Avery Anderson and Carl Crawford have all made a lot of improvement this spring should all play a lot on the other side.”

Roberts, a juco transfer who has been one of the defensive stars at this spring’s camp, was called a “difference maker” by Nichols when he signed him, and the six-foot, 300-pounder hasn’t disappointed. He is a major reason the Tigers figure to improve on a pass rush that ranked dead last in the LSC last fall with just 12 sacks.

“Corey has lived up to expectations,” Fugett said. “He has a chance to be as good as any tackle we’ve had since I’ve been here (Fugett will be on the sidelines for his 14th ECU season this fall).

“Even with just a four-man rush, we should be able to pressure the quarterback this year.”

O’Neill (who was nursing a sore hamstring early in the week but was expected to be ready for Saturday’s game) was Fugett’s only proven performer at linebacker when the spring began, but Ames (one of the team’s best athletes on either side of the ball) and Marshall could join O’Neill to give the Tigers one of the LSC’s best linebacking trios again this fall.

  “I expect Andrew O’Neill to perform like an All-American, and I think he expects that, too,” Fugett said.  “Leon enables you to do a lot of things on defense, because he runs so well. He’s a true freshman as far as being in the (defensive) system, but he’s gotten better every practice. There’s no doubt he’s a defensive football player — he has that mentality.  I couldn’t be happier about the progress he’s made this spring.

“Steven Marshall is just doing what we expect him to to,” Fugett added. “He’s shown leadership, and you can see the confidence he has out there.”

And, like the defensive line, the ECU linebacker corps should be deeper than it was a season ago. Fugett said Robert McDonald-Douglas and juco transfer Kelly Williams have both had solid springs, and Jeb Rollins, who was No. 1 on the depth chart at middle linebacker before he suffered a knee injury in the second spring practice, will also be given a chance to come back and challenge for the starting job in the fall.

“The linebackers who improved the most this spring were Kelly Williams (who came with Nichols from Cisco Junior College in Texas) and Robert Douglas,” Fugett said. “They have really stepped up.”

“Jeb will get a shot this fall,” Fugett said of Rollins. “I have confidence that he will come back and do well.”

Fagan and the three starting linebackers were the only real playmakers on defense for ECU last fall, and, after grabbing 17 turnovers in the first three games, the Tigers forced just nine in the final seven contests. Fugett said he expects that to change in 2006.

“As a defensive staff and unit, we’re putting a lot more emphasis on takeaways, tackles for loss and (forcing) three-and-outs,” Fugett said. “We’re trying to bring back a high level of emotion to defensive football.

O’Neill, who was first-team all-conference as a junior and a leading candidate for LSC defensive Player of the Year in 2006, said he is excited about the ECU’s prospects at linebacker, on defense and overall as the Tigers try to improve on last fall’s disappointing 3-7 record.

“Our only linebacker who hadn’t played defense is Leon (Ames), and he’s playing good and starting to understand the position,” O’Neill said. ”Steven (Marshall) is one of the smartest guys on the team, and I think this group of linebackers has everything we had last year. We just need some time together, but I think we have a shot to be just as smart, just as fast and maybe a step quicker.”

O’Neill said the improved play of the ECU lineman has also forced the linebackers to pick up the pace this spring.

“The way the line is playing is making us step up our play,” he noted. “They’re capable of making plays every snap.”

O’Neill and the other ECU players seemed happy with the change in format for Saturday’s spring game, which, in contrast to the scrimmage that closed last spring’s camp, will be played under game-type conditions, with Lone Star Conference officials calling the action and a scoring system for the defense (two points for a three-and-out, three points for a turnover or blocked punt and six points for a return for a touchdown).

“It’s going to be more of a game-type situation, and that should make it better for the fans and better for us, too,” O’Neill said.  “Before, we got bored. Now we’ll have to stay on our toes.”

  And, like the other Tigers and the coaching staff, he said he is looking forward to ECU’s 2006 season opener against national NCAA Division II power Pittsburg State of Kansas.

  “I think we’ll play a lot harder than we did last year,” O’Neill predicted. “And if we don’t give up, we always have a chance to win.

  “I’m excited about this year, but we’re not worried about Pitt State,” he added. “Let them worry about us.”    

  TIGER NOTES: ECU’s running back corps will be as healthy as it has been all spring for Saturday’s game (which begins at 2 p.m. and, as always is open to the public). Jamaal Smith, who has been nursing a groin injury all spring, returned to practice thisi week, and Evans Gordon (ankle), Pat Lee (shoulder) and Robert Moore (hamstring) were all at full speed for Tuesday’s practice...Robbie Treadwell, a transfer from NEO who has been impressive in his first spring at ECU, will quarterback the White team Saturday (which will be coached by Nichols), while incumbent starter Akeem Leviston will direct the Orange squad (coached by offensive coordinator Chuck Hepola).