After a middle-of-the-road couple of years to start Ruffin McNeill’s career, East Carolina made moves towards the top of Conference USA the last couple of seasons, finishing second in the East division both years. Last season was something of a disappointment, if a 10-win season can be considered so. A tough loss to Virginia Tech borders on acceptable, but losing to good-but-not-great Tulane is less so, considering the Pirates dominated most of their opponents, including North Carolina and NC State. Then with the division title on the line in the last game of the regular season, ECU fell behind 24-0 at Marshall and never recovered, losing 59-28 and settling for second place again. Now, with a step up to the American Athletic Conference, can the Pirates continue to contend on a bigger stage?
The offense had its stars last season, but there was no question that this was quarterback Shane Carden’s show. The (now) senior may have struggled in the losses against VTech and Marshall, but he was outstanding against everyone else. He completed 70.5% of his passes for 4139 yards and 33 TDs, with 10 interceptions. Carden was also pretty mobile, avoiding pressure and adding 103 yards and 10 TDs on the ground.
The ground game was secondary to the passing game, but they had a useful runner in Vintavious Cooper. The senior carried the ball 230 times, gaining 1193 yards and scoring 13 TDs. He did his best work down the stretch, rushing for 565 yards and 7 scores in the last 4 games. Cooper was also a fine receiver, catching 44 passes for 412 yards and a TD. JUCO Breon Allen received increased carries as the season progressed, and finished second on the team with 311 yards and 3 scores.
Carden may have been the star of the show, but he likely wouldn’t have been as productive without receiver Justin Hardy to catch his passes. Hardy had some monster performances en route to 114 receptions, 1284 yards and 8 scores. Also deserving a mention is freshman Isaiah Jones, who was a major factor once the Pirates entered conference play, and finished with 62 catches for 604 yards and another 5 TDs. The other main performers, Lance Ray and Reese Wiggins, combined for 54 receptions, 609 yards and 7 TDs.
The offensive line was good unit, creating lanes for the rushing attack and generally keeping Carden upright. However, when they struggled in pass protection, they really struggled, giving up 13 of their 30 sacks in the losses to Virginia Tech and Tulane. Guards Will Simmons (right) and Jordan Davis (left) both made the all-conference squad.
There is only one thing Carden can do know for an encore. He’s been all-conference, CUSA player of the year, and he’s even getting some Heisman love this year. Now, in his senior year, he’s got to bring home a conference championship. The senior will have his work cut out for him too, with a ton of starters gone from last season. Still, he led the team back to contention before, and I wouldn’t write him off just yet.
In the backfield, Cooper may be a bigger loss than anticipated. Granted, it’s hardly a run-focused offense, but Cooper was good for a big-play or two in games, and he was solid in short yardage. His ability as a receiver also can’t be underestimated. Allen will likely be the top guy, and he has the ability to make plays on the ground and through the air, but he’s not a power runner. Chris Hairston (49-186-3) runs with an edge and will probably assume that role. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Marquez Grayson, a big, slashing runner who could steal carries with a good camp.
Receiver should be in decent shape again, even with the loss of Wiggins and Ray. Hardy is a great player, and will get a long look from all-American and Biletnikoff voters, while Jones could be ready for a breakout season with a year’s experience under his belt. Another freshman, Davon Grayson (17-168-4), had started the first 6 games ahead of Jones, but a knee injury cut his season short. He should take one starting spot, while junior Cam Worthy (19-295-2) played in every game and should get a shot. This is an area the Pirates have recruited well, and competition should be fierce in camp. Don’t be surprised the see more freshmen have an impact this season.
Both Simmons and Davis are gone, leaving a couple of gaping holes on the interior, as is right tackle Adhem Elsawi, a 3-year starter and former all-CUSA performer. Tre Robertson stepped in for Elsawi (injury) for the last 6 games, and did a good job, and he should remain there in 2014. Ike Harris broke into the starting lineup at left tackle as a sophomore last year – keep an eye out for him on all-conference teams by season’s end. Former walk-on CJ Struyk beat out incumbent Taylor Hudson for the starting job at center last season, and the 2 will compete again in camp. Big JUCO Quincy McKinney is a likely starter at one guard spot, with Marquis Wallace and Larry Williams in the running for the other. The Pirates are losing a lot of experience here, not to mention all-CUSA talent, and rebuilding the interior is the offense’s big concern in the offseason.
After a few tough years under the new administration, the defense finally a took a big step in the direction it wanted to go when McNeill took over. The unit was outstanding against the run, allowing just 117 yards per game, and while they were less impressive against the pass, the secondary usually held its own. The 3-man line was the rock on which the rest of the defense stood. End Terrell Stanley was the star up front, making 45 tackles, with 10 in the backfield, and 7 of the team’s 38 sacks. Lee Pegues was no slouch opposite him, making 29 tackles, 7 for loss, with 4.5 sacks and 4 hurries. There was some concern when nose tackle Terry Williams was lost for the year with injury early on, but Chrishon Rose stepped in and performed admirably. The junior had 31 tackles, 6 for loss, with 2.5 sacks.
With the line making life difficult for opposing blockers, the linebackers found the going easier, and were able to flow to the ball almost unhindered. Outside linebacker Derrell Johnson led the fray, making 79 tackles, with 13 for loss, 7 sacks, 9 hurries, 1 interception and 3 PBUs. The unit lost Jeremy Grove to injury early, but Zeek Bigger stepped in and played well in his stead, making 77 tackles, 4.5 for loss, picked off a pass and broke up 5 more. This was an excellent unit, and the reserves played regularly, adding great depth.
The secondary gave up some yards last season, but certainly wasn’t awful, preferring to give up the quick hitters than deeper passes. They allowed opponents to complete 59.1% of their passing attempts and throw 24 TDs, but intercepted 18. Free safety Damon Magazu tied the unit together at the back, leading the team in tackles with 80, and in interceptions with 5, while strong safety Chip Thompson made 57 tackles, picked off 2 passes and broke up a further 8. Cornerback Adonis Armstrong led the team with 11 passes broken up, and picked off a couple as well.
At first glance, there is cause for concern on defense this season, especially with just 3 starters back. However, with a little further digging, the picture doesn’t appear so gloomy. Both starting ends are gone. Pegues has graduated, while Stanley is out for at least 2014 while recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident that left him in a critical condition. Johnathon White and Frederick Presley were the reserves last season, and will see plenty of action again, but watch out for NC State transfer K’Hadree Hooker, who is eligible to play this year. Having both Rose and Williams back in the middle is a huge (literally) plus.
Bigger is the only returning starter at linebacker, as Grove had to retire for medical reasons, but the starting unit should be solid at the very least. Bigger should continue to improve in his junior year, and will be joined in the middle by senior Brandon Williams, who made 69 tackles, with 5½ for loss, despite only starting 1 game. Another reserve, Montese Overton, made 10½ of his 50 tackles in the opponents backfield, and 6 of those were sacks. Overton should take over at 1 outside spot. There are a bunch of candidates for the other spot, and indeed there is enough talent in reserve that the probable starters need to keep looking over their shoulder.
As stressed earlier, this isn’t so much a weak spot as playing in a system that gives up short passes. That was with an experienced unit. Now, 3 starters have graduated, leaving only corners Detric Allen and Josh Hawkins (they split time) as the only players who started a game last season. Hawkins (40 tackles, 4 PBUs, 1 Int) was the initial starter, before a concussion affected his playing time over the rest of the season. Allen (40 tackles, 3 PBUs) played well in his absence, and it wouldn’t be unlikely to see both start in 2014. Safety must be considered a concern with both Magazu and Thompson gone, as well as top reserve Michael Dobson. Lamar Ivey is the likely starter at free safety, with Domonique Lennon at strong, but the position will be well-scrutinized by secondary coach Rick Smith in camp, and incoming freshmen could play a huge role.
After a bright first year in 2012, kicker Warren Harvey struggled at times last year, particularly over 30 yards, hitting just 5 of 14. He missed 3 in the tough loss to Tulane, although the team stood by him. He hit 15 of 25 overall (46 long), but he also hit a respectable 30 touchbacks on 86 kickoffs. Trent Tignor (42.8 gross) was a bit more consistent punting, but at times he made his coverage unit work, as he had a net of 36.6, with opponents averaging 10.3 on punt returns. Tignor only forced 6 fair catches all season. The kickoff coverage could have been better too, averaging just short of 22 yards per return. Ray was a decent kick returner, averaging just over 25 yards a pop, while Hardy averaged 11.3 on punt returns.
Harvey will assume the kicking chores again this season, although he may get a push from Davis Plowman, who saw action in 3 games, and Shawn Williams. Plowman showed a nice leg on kickoffs, and made his only field goal attempt (19 yards). Plowman will also get a look at punter, as will Alabama-transfer Worth Gregory, who will be eligible to play this season. The Pirates will need to replace Ray, but there is no shortage of athletes capable of returning kicks on their roster. Tightening up in the return game is a must.
Can ECU succeed this year in the AAC where they fell short last season in CUSA? They have a tough task ahead of them. Their schedule has a soft middle, including a primetime Thursday ngiht game against the UConn football team, but starts and ends with tough matchups. In OOC the Pirates face South Carolina and the Hokies away this season, although they get North Carolina in Greenville. Their last 4 games are at Cincinnati, home to Tulane, at Tulsa and finishing with UCF at home. While the final 4 are hardly considered a murderers’ row of games, for a team like ECU no game is a given. Last season, I would have considered them favorites in at least 2, and contenders in the others. In 2014, their lack of experienced depth on the offensive line and through the defense will be sorely tested. Last year, the Pirates rotated their defense regularly, do they have the depth to do so this season. An 8-4 finish would be a respectable finish in their debut season in the AAC.