HAMPTON - If Hampton University defensive coordinator Keith Goganious needed proof that this year's players are just as dedicated as last year's, he got it Wednesday morning.
Very early Wednesday morning.
That's when senior safety James Butts called about 2 a.m. with a question about a formation he'd seen while watching film.
"He really wants to be successful in leading the defense this year," Goganious said.
It's a desire Butts inherited from his road-trip roommate last season, safety Ricardo Silva, who led the Pirates with four interceptions and had 74 tackles.
"In the middle of the night, he'd be sitting there, watching film on his computer, seeing what he can do, anticipating the play," Silva said. "When it came up in the game, we'd already know how to jump that play or react to that formation.
"I just did it last night. We had weights early in the morning, but why not get better and study the team that I'm playing against?"
Such hard work paid off for Silva, who signed a free-agent deal with Detroit and is one of three players from a Pirates defense that gave up just 18.4 points per game last year (tied for ninth-best in the nation) who are currently in the NFL. Now, Hampton is hoping such focus pays dividends for Butts and his teammates as they also try to replace defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis (94 tackles, 15 for loss, third-round pick of the New York Jets) and defensive end/linebacker hybrid Brandon Peguese (85 tackles, 23 1/2 for loss, eight sacks, free-agent signee with Philadelphia).
"We lost three good guys," Goganious said. "They're not your run-of-the-mill guys, those guys that went to the next level. I think they brought a lot of leadership to our team. They took a lot with them, but Micah and those guys are filling that void."
That'd be senior cornerback Micah Pellerin, a preseason second-team all-Mid-Eastern Conference pick who had 41 tackles and two interceptions in 2010. Goganious is also looking for leadership from Butts, working his way back to full strength after playing eight games with a torn ACL last year, and junior defensive end Daryell Walker, a product of Bethel High who is among the Pirates' most experienced returning linemen.
"(Butts) is a very driven guy," Goganious said. "The kids respect him. They look up to him. They listen to the things he says. He's been here for a while. (Walker) worked real hard this summer to get himself ready. I think he'll be ready to play."
The unquestioned strength of the Pirates' 2011 defense, though, will be a linebacking corps that includes senior Gerald Francois, sophomore Delbert Tyler – who had 62 tackles while starting every game as a freshman – and middle linebacker Lyndell Gibson, who started 13 games and had 66 tackles at Virginia Tech last season before transferring after being found guilty of a DUI charge in April.
"The biggest thing with him is the maturity level and the hard-hat mentality," HU head coach Donovan Rose said. "He's come in and worked hard."
Rose said Gibson, like former HU linebacker and current Detroit Lion Justin Durant, makes players around him better. The Pirates are hoping that's also the case for Maryland transfer Ian Davidson, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound senior left tackle who wears No. 97, Ellis' number last year.
"He's got the same number," Rose said. "I don't know if he can do what Ken has done, but he's going to add some depth."
The Pirates may not put up the individual numbers achieved last year by Ellis, Peguese and Silva – or by a pass defense that allowed just 141.6 yards per game, fourth-best in the nation - but they're banking on that increased depth adding a different dimension in 2011.
"Silva was a big part of the defense, just like big Ken, just like Brandon Peguese," Butts said. "(But) we were always one defense. They didn't just get there by themselves. The whole defense contributed as one, so that gave them a better shot, better looks."
Hampton will see how this year's unit stacks up in Saturday's season opener against Alabama A&M in the Chicago Football Classic at Soldier Field.
"Like I told the guys, they set the bar," Goganious said. "You have to take what they did that was successful and emulate it and try to repeat it. The meetings the guys had among themselves, the way they practiced, their preparation – it's a great thing to look back on and see what was successful and why it was successful.
"It's a great blueprint, and it's what these guys have been working real hard to duplicate, but yet still create their own niche."