GREENVILLE, N.C. — Below is the final (10th) of 10 spring practice “Q&A” segments – today’s edition features cornerbacks coach Steve Ellis and returning sophomores Malik Fleming and Ja’Quan McMillian.
Q: What were your key priorities this spring, especially after not having the opportunity last year after your hire, and how has your group responded?
A: The main thing we wanted to focus on this spring is being a tighter unit. The biggest thing is that they believe they are brothers. The more you have accountability and toughness, that equals trust. Once you have that trust, you get confidence, and the only way you can have trust and confidence is through that brotherhood. Our main focus for the spring was building on what we had last year and carrying it over to the spring. I think we have a tight unit, and those guys love each other – every time I see them, they are all together. J-Mac, Malik and Nolan are the leaders of the group. Some people think being a leader of a group is all Hollywood, but it’s not that way here. It is about how they train in the weight room, the way they train doing back drills, the way they concentrate and focus during the meetings and take it out to the practice field. So, the younger guys have had the opportunity to see those guys work and train. That is the great thing about those guys being leaders of our group – they are great young men for the young guys to follow, as well as the football team.
Q: You return both starters who arguably rank among the top corners in this league – how do you take them to an even higher level in 2021?
A: The main goal for us is to always come out and be the best. You earn everything you get. I appreciate the rankings and accolades people are giving us, but we have to earn it every day. The only way you earn it is on that practice field. Coach Houston showed a great video to the guys since it was the one-year anniversary since “The Last Dance” came out. In it, Michael Jordan talked about how you have to earn it, the sacrifice you have to put your body through it to be able to win and dominate. I am really excited about those guys. Our guys have really matured during the practices and our goal is to finish out this week, have a great spring game and lead us into the summer to have a great season.
Q: Including Ja’Quan McMillian (8th/2020), you’ve consistently held high national rankings in interceptions (players/teams) – what are some of the keys getting picks on a frequent basis?
A: As a defensive back, your main goal is to do your job. Just be in the right place, have your eyes on the right keys and believe in the philosophy of the defense. The plays will come if you are focused, disciplined and doing your job. It is amazing how many things will come to you if you do your job. So, the main goals are to stay focused, disciplined and keep grinding, and continue to be a great teammate.
Q: What attracted you to East Carolina and did you have any prior connections to Coach Houston?
A: At my previous university we played East Carolina, I believe in 2013 (see below), and we played them at our place. The fans that traveled and came to our game – it was amazing. It was all purple and gold in our stadium. So that initially got me attracted to East Carolina, but the next thing was Coach Houston. He is a winner. He won in high school, won in Division II and won at the FCS level. He just has a track record of winning. He’s a great leader of men, a great “X&O” coach, a great motivator and someone I can see myself getting mentorship from and get better as a coach. Next, the fan base – they just love football.
Q: What were your early impressions of the ECU program as a coach who faced the Pirates twice (MTSU/2013, USF/2019) on the opposite sideline?
A: That they have a great tradition. The tradition that this is one of the top schools in the country and Group of 5. With Coach Houston’s track record, and I know what his intentions are, we are trying to get back to the dominate state we were in the older days. I am excited about this and the fact that the kids love ball. They work hard and we have a great culture here. The guys have bought in to what Coach Houston is selling, and my job is to take his vision and permeate it throughout the defensive back room, and hopefully generate it throughout the whole team.
Q: What did you learn during your experiences in the prestigious NFL Coaches Fellowship Program with the Steelers and Bills?
A: One of the biggest things I learned is that all guys want to get better. It was great to be with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, especially considering they won a Super Bowl that year. Even though Big Ben (Ben Roethlisberger) does not play defense, it was just great to be around guys who are driven. They want to be the best, and every day in training camp, it was all about fighting from the standpoint of competing to make each other better. One thing I took from it is, that at all levels, if you can help a young man get better, they will gravitate to you and listen. Because at the end of the day, everyone wants to be successful.
Q: How did you handle the successful transition from player to coach at your alma mater (Nicholls State) in just a one-year span?
A: I always wanted to be a coach, ever since I was five years old when I was a ball boy for my brother’s high school. Thankfully for me, when I graduated one of the coaches left and they presented me with that opportunity. I always knew I wanted to do something in football. Whether it was to coach or scout, I just wanted to give myself to the game because it gave me so much. Once I got the opportunity, I just loved it. It is a great way to see guys come in and develop. You get them as young boys and they leave as young men. Hopefully in five to 10 years they are calling me to tell me they are getting married or they have a son or daughter – that they have that much respect and a relationship built with you that they can call not as a coach, but a friend.
Q: What are some things you’ve really focused on this spring to elevate your game to an even higher level?
A: Technique, speed and strength, but technique the most.
Q: What did you learn most in 2020, your first year as a full-time starter?
A: The speed of the game is different. I played a little bit my freshman year, but this year it was faster.
Q: What has been Coach Ellis’ main message in the room and how has he helped your development since his arrival last winter?
A: To be a pro. That is our motto. If you want to be a pro, then you try like a pro. You have to pretend like you are going to be the best player, so just be a pro.
Q: Of your 25 tackles, 20 were solo stops last year – what are the keys of successfully tackling in space?
A: Lower shoulder, lower legs and take a shot. Do not be scared.
Q: You led the entire state of Georgia in interceptions (9) as a junior while leading your high school team to a state title (14-1 record) – what were some your favorite memories from that year?
A: Our team. We were one of the funniest teams in America, so it was fun to play with them. Our defensive line helped me get those picks too.
Q: Speaking of high school, you were also an accomplished receiver – do you miss playing offense? Also, do you think that double duty has helped in the interception department?
A: A little bit, it was fun. But my heart is on defense. Playing receiver has helped me as far as understanding routes, but as far as catching, I have always been able to do that.
Q: What kind of advice did you get from your college and pro football-playing cousins, including Chiefs’ first-round draft pick Eric Berry?
A: When adversity strikes, keep going.
Q: After your football career is over, what are your future plans (as a communication major)?
A: I have not gotten there yet.
Q: Although you’ve been out of action a little this spring, what are some things you’ve been able to work on to get ready for the 2021 season?
A: Really, just focusing on technique. Trying to stay conditioned and taking coaching from Coach Ellis and stay grinding.
Q: How has this program changed since your last spring practice (as an early enrollee freshman in 2019)?
A: There are really no weak links. In the past, there were some. Everybody has one goal and that is to win. That is the main difference. Everyone is competitive, competing and it is making everyone else better.
Q: You’re a two-year starter, were 8th nationally in interceptions (4) and earned All-AAC honors as a sophomore last season – to who and what do you credit your success so far?
A: Just God. Without God, I would not be able to do any of this. Coach Ellis has put a lot of confidence in me since he has come in. Also, practice gave me the confidence and that is about it.
Q: In all, what has Coach Ellis brought to the defense, the room and to your personal growth since he joined the staff?
A: His energy. He makes everyone better, and like I said earlier, he brings confidence into the whole room. He has the mindset to just win.
Q: BTW, what’s your secret playing against SMU (career-high 7 tackles in ’19, 5 solo stops & 2 picks – including a game-clincher – in 2020)?
A: To just kept fighting and scrapping. They started to come back and I knew I had to make a play. I reverted to what we do in practice every day, use technique and focus, and everything else handled itself.
Q: What are some of your keys to intercepting passes since you already have nearly 30 (22 high school/team-best 7 in just two years at ECU)?
A: I played receiver in high school, so just doing a lot of ball drills. In practice here, we have a lot of ball drills too so that really helps.
Q: Who are some of the NFL players you follow and maybe model your game after?
A: Tyrann Mathieu. I watch him every day and he is my favorite player. Also, Denzel Ward for the Cleveland Browns – I watch and study him. I try and study a lot of players, but Tyrann Mathieu and Denzel Ward are at the top of the list.