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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 75: East Carolina

Just when you think East Carolina has solved its biggest problem, another one comes up and holds the program in its current holding pattern of mediocrity. Heading into last season, the Pirates’ biggest concern was an historically bad defense; Ruffin McNeill and his staff partially solved that conundrum, making heady scheme and personnel moves that resulted in a significant increase across the board. The end result was – in a perfect world, or the world most thought would come to pass in 2011 – a defense more than good enough to life E.C.U. into Conference USA title contention. But a funny thing happened on the feel-good path to nine wins: E.C.U. started turning the ball over. And not just in one game, or two, or three, but in every game, eventually tying Iowa State for the most turnovers in the F.B.S. with 35. Want to sabotage a miraculous turnaround on defense? Then shoot yourself in the foot on offense again and again and again.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Greenville, N.C.

Nickname
Pirates

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 82

2011 record
(5-7, 4-4

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 82

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    App. St.
  • Sept. 8
    at S. Carolina
  • Sept. 15
    at Southern Miss.
  • Sept. 22
    at U.N.C.
  • Sept. 29
    UTEP
  • Oct. 4
    at U.C.F.
  • Oct. 13
    Memphis
  • Oct. 20
    at U.A.B.
  • Oct. 27
    Navy
  • Nov. 3
    Houston
  • Nov. 17
    at Tulane
  • Nov. 23
    Marshall

Last year’s prediction

I’m really not convinced that the defense is going to be good enough to allow the Pirates to make any improvement in the win column. Yeah, six starters are back from a year ago, but in my mind, the defense that returns will enter another learning curve with the new alignment, which may play to some of this group’s strength but will serve as the program’s third system in as many years. Then there’s this schedule, which isn’t conducive to a strong start; E.C.U. might need to close strong in order to get to six wins. I don’t think repeating last year’s bowl berth is an impossibility in the least, but I do think E.C.U. needs to find some answers defensively before we start considering the Pirates realistic Conference USA contenders.

2011 recap

In a nutshell It’s a painful game, but let’s play anyway. What could E.C.U. have achieved with last year’s defense and its offense from 2010? Consider: Last year’s defense trimmed 102.5 yards per game off its total from two seasons ago, allowing about one fewer yard per play and moving up 26 spots nationally against the run. The bumbling, mistake-making offense, on the other hand, scored 10 fewer points per game and, as noted, turned the ball over at an alarming rate. If you could have combined last year’s defense with the Pirates’ offense of two seasons ago, you would have seen at least a bowl team, if not a team more capable of making noise in the Conference USA hunt. Alas. As it was, E.C.U. wasted the most dramatic defensive turnaround in college football. E.C.U.’s last two teams have been far too manic; the Pirates need to find their medium.

High point A three-game winning streak in October. Memphis and Tulane were two, yeah, but E.C.U. also topped Navy, a team that embarrassed the Pirates – 76-35, if you recall – the year before. This stretch left E.C.U. at 4-4 entering November.

Low point The Pirates would win only one more time down the stretch, beating U.C.F., 38-31, on the second-to-last Saturday of the regular season. That win left E.C.U. at 5-6, needing a win over Marshall on Nov. 26 to reach a second straight bowl game; the Pirates forced overtime with a late touchdown pass, but the Thundering Herd would score in the first overtime to net a 34-27 win. You likely won’t be surprised to hear that E.C.U.’s overtime possession ended in an interception. E.C.U. would also lose to UTEP, which was ridiculous, and lost to Houston and Southern Mississippi by a combined score of 104-31.

Tidbit In this era of conference expansion, it’s probably relevant to note one thing that E.C.U. football does extremely well: sell out its home stadium. The program has set new attendance records in each of the last two years, drawing 300,069 fans – 50,012 per game – to its six home games last fall. That average attendance figure led all non-B.C.S. conference programs by a healthy margin; the distance between E.C.U. and second-place San Diego State, which drew an average of 41,044 fans – thanks in part to a N.F.L. stadium – is larger than the distance between the Aztecs and fifth-place Air Force. And before you think that E.C.U., like S.D.S.U., is simply the beneficiary of an oversized venue, consider the fact that the stadium was filled to 100 percent capacity in 2011. E.C.U. has a very, very underrated fan base.

Tidbit (turnovers edition) E.C.U. is 2-11 under McNeill when losing the turnover battle, with one such win in each of the last two years. Last year’s victory, a 28-23 decision over U.A.B., came about thanks in large part to the Blazers’ own sloppiness; while E.C.U. turned the ball over seven times, the Blazers returned the favor — somewhat — with three turnovers of their own. In 2010, the Pirates were able to top Southern Mississippi, 44-43, despite being minus-four in turnovers.

Former players in the N.F.L.

13 OT Steven Baker (Indianapolis), WR Terrance Cooper (Kansas City), CB Emanuel Davis (Cleveland), QB Dominique Davis (Atlanta), TE Davon Drew (Baltimore), QB David Garrard (Miami), WR Dwayne Harris (Dallas), RB Chris Johnson (Tennessee), DT Linval Joseph )New York Giants), FB Vonta Leach (Baltimore), NT Jay Ross (Buffalo), OT Willie Smith (Washington), DE C.J. Wilson (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Non-Tobacco Road basketball programs in N.C.
1. Davidson.
2. Charlotte.
3. Campbell.
4. East Carolina.
5. Gardner-Webb.

Coaching

Ruffin McNeill (East Carolina ’80), 11-14 after two seasons. McNeill is a former team captain and three-year starter at defensive back for the Pirates; he was captain of the 1978 team, which played in East Carolina’s first bowl of the modern era. McNeill earned national recognition for steering Texas Tech to an Alamo Bowl win over Michigan State following the university’s decision to fire Mike Leach in 2009. The circumstances of Leach’s dismissal, of which we are all aware, could have very well disrupted — and I’m surprised it didn’t — the Red Raiders’ locker room. However, as the Alamo Bowl performance illustrated, McNeill’s deft touch kept the team motivated. McNeill spent 10 seasons as an assistant on Leach’s staff, first as the team’s linebackers coach (2000-2) before moving to defensive tackles coach and special teams coordinator (2003-7). Texas Tech routinely had one of the Big 12’s most potent return games, highlighted by the N.C.A.A.-record breaking career of wide receiver Wes Welker. McNeill’s career, however, took a sizable step forward upon his promotion to defensive coordinator four games into the 2007 season. It is no coincidence that Texas Tech’s finest stretch of the Leach era coincided with McNeill’s promotion; in 2008, the Red Raiders finished with a school-record 11 wins. Tech allowed 292 points in McNeill’s final season, its fewest since 2005 and the third-fewest of Leach’s 10-year tenure. McNeill’s only other experience on the F.B.S. level came at U.N.L.V., where he served as the team’s defensive coordinator from 1997-98; he was also the U.N.L.V. assistant head coach in 1998. His defense-first mentality helped E.C.U. turn the corner defensively last fall, but the program needs to continue making strides on both sides of the ball before returning to its perch atop Conference USA.

Players to watch

This offense works like gangbusters when it doesn’t lead the nation in turnovers. That E.C.U. so quickly grasped this offense in its first season under McNeill speaks to two things: one, that the system isn’t as difficult to handle as some might suggest; and two, that the Pirates obviously have talent and athleticism at the skill positions. The latter fact remains true heading into 2012, even if E.C.U. needs to replace a record-setting quarterback. A bigger issue, actually, might be an offensive line — one that does return a good amount of experience — that must do a better job protecting the quarterback.

The numbers are a bit misleading; this is also the case on defense, which I’ll touch on below. E.C.U. did allow 30.0 sacks last fall, which tied for 85th nationally. But this offense did attempt 524 passes, the 13th-most nationally, which equates to 17.5 attempts per sack allowed. That’s not a terrible ratio by any means. Nevertheless: E.C.U.’s offensive front can be better in this area, and must also be more physical when the offense does decide to turn its attention to the run.

One issue that plagued the line last fall was a lack of a consistent starting five. Only one position, right guard, had the same starter in all 12 games. E.C.U. had two players start at left tackle, two at left guard, three at center and four at right tackle. The good news? Of the 10 linemen who made at least one start last fall, seven are back in the fold. The line’s best is junior right guard Will Simmons, he of the 12 starts a year ago. Junior Grant Harner returns at right tackle, though he’s embroiled in a battle for the starting role with senior Robert Jones. That’s not a bad strong side.

The two positions hurt by graduation are left tackle and center. The Pirates didn’t have to look far for a replacement for Steven Baker on the blind side: Adhem Elsawi, a junior, started five games at left guard a year ago, and has very nice size and length to handle Conference USA’s edge rushers. He’s joined at left guard by junior Jordan Davis, who started the final seven games of last season at the position. Now, center has been an issue for E.C.U. over the last few years; it’ll be key to find a permanent solution. While sophomore Taylor Hudson held the top spot after the spring, he’ll need to continue fending off senior Josh Clark — one of many past starters at center — to retain the starting job. This is a young line with several young, promising redshirt freshmen in reserve. This group will get much better throughout the season.

E.C.U. needs more from its receivers. One player due to break out in this system is sophomore Justin Hardy (64 catches for 658 yards), an inside receiver with the potential for a 1,000-yard season. He’s joined inside in this wide-open offense by junior Justin Jones — a huge weapon in the red zone — sophomore Danny Webster (43 for 418) and senior Derrick Harris (23 for 168). There’s also some nice depth at outside receiver, a group led by senior Andrew Bodenheimer (46 for 484) and junior Reese Wiggins (29 for 432).

Wiggins is a likely starter, though senior Dayon Arrington made a push for playing time during the spring. Additional depth comes from redshirt freshman Antonio Cannon and, come August, JUCO transfer Lance Ray — he could make an immediate impact. E.C.U. simply needs more explosiveness from its receiver corps.

The Pirates add an interesting new ball-carrier into the mix at running back in former U.N.C. transfer Hunter Furr, who should become the team’s short-yardage back from the start. E.C.U. also returns its top three rushers from a year ago: senior Reggie Bullock (428 yards) and juniors Torrance Hunt (489 yards) and Michael Dobson (221 yards). Perhaps adding Furr into the equation will free up one of the three returning backs to become more of a change-of-pace option, which in turn could make the entire running game more efficient. Bullock and Dobson were the top pair leaving spring ball, with Furr and Hunt running behind, but it’s likely that the entire group sees carries in the early going. In a perfect world, the Pirates would run for 1,750 yards as a team. It’s not likely that the running game reaches that standard, but the options are there.

The Pirates allowed 32.3 points per game last fall, which isn’t good, but the number is misleading. E.C.U. was hugely improved defensively last fall, taking a significant and immediate step forward in its first season running a 3-4 system. That the defense hit the ground running so quickly bodes very well for this coming season and beyond, even if the Pirates still need to address a few concerns – issues that are only natural when considering the massive scheme change. The defense remains too porous on the ground, particularly in the red zone. The pass rush took a step forward over the second half, but most carry that torrid finish over to 2012.

And the secondary, which lost three starters, needs to continue playing solid defense against the pass. More numbers: E.C.U. allowed 14 fewer touchdowns than in 2010, 851 fewer yards and 1.2 fewer yards per pass attempt – that adds up over the span of a season. The key heading into September will be to match, if not build upon, last season’s growth with a fairly new cast of characters. The one returning starter is junior free safety Damon Magazu (80 tackles, 4 interceptions), who had a terrific first season as a full-time starter. Though only a junior, he’ll need to take on a leadership role not only in the secondary but for this defense as a whole.

Each of the two starting cornerbacks, seniors Leonard Paulk and Jacobi Jenkins, made one start a year ago. Well, Paulk’s a clear starter; Jenkins held a very slight grasp on the starting job coming out of the spring, ahead of JUCO transfer Adonis Armstrong, and there’s a very good chance that Armstrong eventually moves ahead to grab the starting job. There were two JUCO transfers in for spring, both from the same junior college in Mississippi, and both might be named the starter by the end of August: Armstrong and strong safety Chip Thompson. Like his former JUCO teammate at cornerback, Thompson is neck-and-neck for a starting role – sophomore Lamar Ivey is ahead for now, but that might change once the team returns to the practice field in August.

More changes are afoot along the front seven, though not to as drastic a degree as in the defensive backfield. One noteworthy move: Derrell Johnson (39 tackles, 5.5 for loss) moves from end to outside linebacker. The junior made 12 starts at end a season ago, but E.C.U. is right in thinking that Johnson is a nice fit with his hand off the ground; while not quite a pass-rushing menace off the edge, Johnson is quick enough to run with intermediate routes and more than strong enough to handle blockers in the run game. Johnson is joined at outside linebacker by sophomore Maurice Falls, who made a pair of sacks in limited duty a year ago. Falls’ development has been praised by the coaching staff: he’s added weight and strength over the last 24 months while getting faster, believe it or not, and could be in line for a very nice season if he holds onto the starting job.

Other options at outside linebacker include senior Chris Baker (32 tackles) and sophomore Jake Geary (29 tackles, 5.0 for loss), two returning contributors who combined to split time in the starting lineup last fall. It’s too soon to say that each is out of the running for a starting role, but at worst, each is a valuable – and experienced – reserve off the bench. It’ll be the status quo in the middle: Jeremy Grove (122 tackles) at one spot and either Kyle Tudor (58 tackles) or Daniel Drake (74 tackles) at the other. These three took well to the new system, and it makes sense that each will be even more comfortable in the 3-4 by September. Grove in particular is an all-conference lock.

There’s a lot riding on junior Lee Pegues’ ability to play up to his potential as the new starter at end. I thought that Pegues was going to start last fall, when he added on weight to take on the challenge of being a 3-4 end, but he was a bit underwhelming – though not a disappointment, to be fair. A year and another 25 pounds later, Pegues is more than ready for the challenge. What E.C.U. needs from him in 2012 is anchor-like play against the run, as expected, but also a bit of disruption off the edge on passing downs. Pegues is joined at by junior Matt Milner (37 tackles), a returning starter, while senior Michael Brooks is back in his role at nose tackle.

While the defense took a step forward last fall, it’s only logical to wait for this group to prove itself once again before getting fully on board. There’s reason to be optimistic about the front seven, especially if Johnson can move seamlessly into his new role at linebacker – which I think he will – and Pegues can occupy Johnson’s shoes at end. The bigger issue is the secondary, which played well last fall but might rely heavily on two JUCO transfers. It’s way too early to say that both will struggle, of course, but it’s also too early to say that both will play at a high enough level to run with Conference USA’s best. For now, I’m taking a wait-and-see approach with this defense as a whole.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback E.C.U. is in a slightly enviable situation as it looks to replace Dominique Davis, the former Boston College transfer who set a handful of school records over his two seasons with the program. The Pirates and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley — like his mentor, Mike Leach, he knows something about quarterback play — are running a four-man quarterback competition. When a team opens a position up to such competition, the cream often rises to the top. In short, increased competition typically brings out of the best from each contender — and if one or two can’t keep up, a coaching staff can simply begin trimming the fat.

You’ve become used to hearing one thing from a head coach and believing another, but I think that McNeill and Riley are on point: E.C.U. might not be entertaining all four options, but I do think that this is a realistic three-quarterback battle. The one player that seems a bit out of the competition is senior Brad Wornick, a former walk-on. But the three still very much neck-and-neck are junior Rio Johnson, sophomore Shane Carden and redshirt freshman Cody Keith. The winner gets to drive one of the most quarterback-friendly systems in college football.

Each has at least one positive in their corner. Johnson was last year’s backup, completing 20 of 29 attempts for 157 yards, and knows the system better than Carden and Keith. Carden is the most athletic of the bunch, which is intriguing; despite breaking a finger and missing the last week-plus of the spring, Carden is very much in the conversation. Keith, who struggled with an ankle injury as a true freshman, was very impressive over the last portion of spring ball. This is likely the most interesting position battle occurring in Conference USA. My guess? Johnson’s experience might be too much for Carden or Keith to overcome. But Carden’s athletic ability might give him a role in certain packages — and, to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised to see E.C.U. hand the mantle to Keith and let him develop.

Game(s) to watch

It’s extremely likely that E.C.U. is going to start slowly — again. The year’s first half includes four very tough road games in South Carolina, U.N.C., Southern Mississippi and U.C.F., and the Pirates really don’t want to fall into an 0-2 hole in conference play. There are winnable games, of course, but in order to be a East division contender, E.C.U. must sweep UTEP, Memphis, U.A.B., Tulane and Marshall. I’d be surprised if the season finale against the Thundering Herd doesn’t again mean the difference between a bowl trip and a long offseason for at least one team.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This team should be better on offense despite breaking in a new quarterback. That’s because the Pirates simply can’t turn the ball over as frequently as they did a year ago; even if the passing game is slightly less productive or explosive, whomever E.C.U. goes with at quarterback – and I do think that it’ll be Johnson – will do a better job keeping this offense in a position to score points. But the offense does need help in one other area, in my opinion: I’m a little worried about a dearth of big-play ability at receiver. The Pirates value consistency, but the offense could use a dash of fireworks both at the inside and outside spots. Otherwise, however, the offense seems set. The line needs to find a starting five and stick with it, especially at center, but the group is young enough to expect some growth throughout the coming season. If E.C.U. does get a push up front, it has enough options in the backfield to put together a capable running game.

A lot is riding on this defense. On one hand, you see the huge strides the group took forward last fall and expect nothing but further progression in 2012. On the other hand, E.C.U. does have a few trouble spots in the secondary; must sew up some faulty play against the run; and needs both starting linebackers, Johnson and Falls – or one of the returning starters – to bring pressure on passing downs. I’m not yet completely sold on this defense, though I do think that it has the potential to take another step forward. So, in the big picture, I don’t think that E.C.U. is a complete team. But it’s a better team, and should recover from a slow start to factor into the postseason mix in November. The question: If push comes to shove, can E.C.U. take care of teams like Tulane and Marshall down the stretch to make a return to bowl play?

Dream season E.C.U. knocks off North Carolina and Southern Mississippi on the road in September. Those wins lift the Pirates into the meat of Conference USA play on a high note, helping this team notch its first nine-win regular season since 1999.

Nightmare season A slow start carries over to October. The Pirates open the year’s second month with a loss to UTEP, dropping them to 1-4, and after beating Memphis and U.A.B. lose each of their last five games. The end result is a 3-9 finish, which is sour enough to lead the program to relieve McNeill of his duties.

In case you were wondering

Where do East Carolina fans congregate? You know I always plug the independent sites first, so check out BoneyardBanter.com and Hoist the Colours, where you can find chatter on E.C.U. football and baseball in equal measure. Fans can follow recruiting at Pirates Illustrated and Inside ECU Sports. Further coverage can be found at the Web site of the East Carolinian.

East Carolina’s all-name nominee LB Zeek Bigger.

Word Count

Through 50 teams 179,819.

Up Next

Who is No. 74? An easier hint after yesterday’s doozy. Tomorrow’s program has won more games over the last two seasons than during any two-year span since joining its current conference in 1999.

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Comments

  1. Alex Payne says:

    San Diego State?

  2. Tim says:

    Technically, BYU led non-BCS teams in average home attendance at 60,265 in 2011 (and regularly avg’s 64,000+, 2007-2009)

  3. jjncaa says:

    ” a coaching staff can simply begin trimming the fat” – very nice inside joke :)

  4. David says:

    I guess you were cackling like a Pirate after all.

  5. Afterthought says:

    Cackling like a pirate indeed. Wow, nobody got that.

    Proof that ECWhoo and CUSA are an afterthought on par with the Sun Belt.

    Arrrrr, she blows (“she” being Crackalina).

  6. Dr. Nick says:

    Tim,
    As a BYU fan I was delighted to read Paul’s statement. Part of the goal of BYU becoming independent was to avoid being left in the kiddie pool when the other major non-BCS teams (read Utah) got the big-league call-ups.

  7. Ezra says:

    BYU’s in the kiddie pool now, though. First it sunk the MWC, and then it watched as the Big4 sunk the rest of the league.

  8. Hokieshibe says:

    I had no idea ECU had such good attendance. Cool stuff.

  9. Bobak says:

    I thought yesterday’s was obvious. I guess to each their own.

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