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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. 82: East Carolina

Ruffin McNeill has tightened his belt: the second-year East Carolina coach dropped about 80 pounds between the end of the 2010 season and this spring, increasing his mobility and adding a “sharper” focus to his day-to-day duties, according to McNeill. He badly wants his defense to follow suit after an ugly, error-filled season, one that found the E.C.U.’s Swiss cheese defense end the year alongside powerhouses like New Mexico and Memphis in the national rankings. Perhaps his own increased agility served as the impetus behind his decision to move from a 4-3 base defensive set to a 3-4, which should allow E.C.U. to put athletes on the field in a position to make plays in space. At least there’s this offense, which is potent, and it’s not as if the defense needs to become Alabama overnight – all this offense needs is for its defensive counterparts to be is below average, but not hide-the-children terrible.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Greenville, N.C.

Nickname
Pirates

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 91

2010 record
(6-7, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 70

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    South Carolina (in Charlotte, N.C.)
  • Sept. 10
    Virginia Tech
  • Sept. 24
    U.A.B.
  • Oct. 1
    U.N.C.
  • Oct. 8
    at Houston
  • Oct. 15
    at Memphis
  • Oct. 22
    at Navy
  • Oct. 29
    Tulane
  • Nov. 5
    Southern Miss.
  • Nov. 12
    at UTEP
  • Nov. 19
    U.C.F.
  • Nov. 26
    at Marshall

Last year’s prediction

Few teams will face such a perfect storm in 2010: a new coach, new systems on both sides of the ball and the departure of many of last year’s contributors. I don’t think the first year of the Ruffin McNeill era will be a smooth one. In McNeill’s defense, I don’t think that even a Skip Holtz-led team would do more than merely compete for bowl eligibility in 2010; those aforementioned losses would not be as disturbing if Holtz’s system had remained in place, however. Yet he’s not, of course, and this year looks like a rebuilding season for a program recently accustomed to reigning atop Conference USA. I don’t mean to insinuate that East Carolina will be a 10-loss team: the offense has the receivers to succeed and a strong offensive line, and the defense remains strong in the secondary. This alone should allow E.C.U. to avoid an embarrassing debut season for its new coach, and perhaps — if the team really takes to the new schemes — battle for bowl eligibility.

2010 recap

In a nutshell I have a theory: E.C.U. was blessed, not cursed, to return only seven starters off the 2009 team heading into last fall. I thought it would be a detriment, but perhaps the fresh slate on the depth chart made the wholesale changes easier to accept – by which I mean an experienced 2009 team, perhaps, would have had a harder time adapting to the new offensive and defensive philosophies. Not the case; well, not the case on offense, at least. Offensively, E.C.U. was a menace: 25th nationally in total offense, 15th in scoring and 8th in passing, numbers that ranked fourth, third and second in Conference USA. I really, truly believed that it would be a transitional year offensively for the Pirates. As loyal readers can attest, I’m often wrong. At least I was right about this defense, which was right up (down?) there among the worst defenses I’ve seen over the last 10 years. It was that bad – worse, even. Last in the F.B.S. in total defense, behind New Mexico, Memphis, New Mexico State… well, everyone. Second-to-last in scoring, 117th against the run, 107th against the pass, unable to stop anybody, it was the defense that made games interesting but also the defense that led E.C.U. to go 6-7.

High point The 5-2 start, complete with two snoozers, three nail-biters and three very, very impressive wins. Not surprisingly, the nail-biters came against the three good teams: Tulsa, Southern Mississippi and N.C. State; the win over the Golden Hurricane came on a last-second Hail Mary, and it took overtime for E.C.U. to squeeze past Tom O’Brien’s Wolfpack. The win over Tulsa stands out to me, if only because that, coming on the first Sunday of the year, was a big part of our welcome-to-college-football weekend of 2010.

Low point The consistently poor play of the defense. No one game stands out more than a 76-35 loss to Navy, which is notable if only because it’s actually quite hard for Navy, which runs the ball 90 percent of the time, to score 76 points. The Midshipmen rushed for 521 yards, or roughly a third of a mile. It wasn’t that much prettier two weeks later, when E.C.U. gave up 62 points and 639 yards of offense in a loss to Rice. I’m not kidding: this was one of the worst defenses I’ve ever seen.

Tidbit E.C.U. has a career winning record against seven of its 12 opponents on the 2011 season. All seven are conference foes, with Southern Mississippi – E.C.U. trails 10-26 – the lone outlier. But the Pirates also have a losing all-time record against each of its four non-conference opponents: 5-10 against South Carolina, 5-11 against Virginia Tech, 2-10-1 against North Carolina and 0-2 against Navy.

Tidbit (dichotomy edition) For an example of how much weight was on the offense’s shoulders in 2010, consider this: E.C.U. went 2-6 when gaining 454 yards or less of total offense, and never totaled less than 338 yards of offense in a game. That should shed some light on how impossible it was for the Pirates to rely at all on this defense. The Pirates gained less than 400 yards of offense four times, against Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Southern Miss and Maryland, games in which the defense allowed 49, 42, 43 and 51 points, respectively.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

E.C.U. ended 2010 ranked dead last, 120th, in total defense and 25th in total offense, a 95-spot discrepancy. Can you name the three teams with the widest margin between their final rankings in each category?

Teams already spoken for: Iowa (M Meyer), Northwestern (NUwildcat09), Pittsburgh (htp2012), Texas (Burnt Orange).

Former players in the N.F.L.

12 WR Terrance Cooper (Kansas City), P Matt Dodge (New York Giants), TE Davon Drew (Baltimore), QB David Garrard (Jacksonville), WR Dwayne Harris (Dallas), RB Chris Johnson (Tennessee), DT Linval Joseph (New York Giants), FB Vonta Leach (Houston), RB Dominique Lindsay (Tennessee), DT Jay Ross (Green Bay), OT Guy Whimper (Jacksonville), DE C.J. Wilson (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Members of the Mike Leach coaching tree
1. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia.
2. Art Briles, Baylor.
3. Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina.
4. Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech.
5. Bill Bedenbaugh, West Virginia.

Coaching

Ruffin McNeill (East Carolina ’80), 6-7 after a single season. 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 Raider 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.

Players to watch

Sometimes things just fall right into place. Take this offense in 2010, for instance: the pieces were there for Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid attack to work from day one – I stand very corrected – and the Pirates hit the ground running in September and never looked back. More specifically, look at how well things worked out for both the Pirates and former Boston College transfer Dominique Davis, who had a very effective debut season in the starting lineup. Now that was a transfer that really worked.

Davis was super in all but one regard: he struggled with turnovers, especially in September and November, and that’s the only thing holding him back from being Conference USA’s second-best quarterback – don’t forget that Case Keenum is back at Houston. By and large, however, Davis was terrific, throwing for 3,967 yards and 37 scores while hitting on nearly 65 percent of his attempts. He also showed himself to be dangerous at times as a runner, finishing second on the team with nine touchdowns. My only regret with Davis is that it took him so long to find his place; after B.C. and a stop at junior college, he only has one year of eligibility remaining.

The backfield is bereft of any real experience, and while you’d say that it doesn’t matter much, thanks to the passing attack, it is of vital importance that E.C.U. find a back who can keep defenses honest. But while there was competition during the spring, the consensus is that JUCO transfer Reggie Bullock will take the job once he arrives on campus. The battle is then for the backup role, which could go to sophomore Michael Dobson (62 yards rushing) or redshirt freshman Damonte Terry, both of whom seem to have a bright future.

Losing a consistent producer like Dwayne Harris hurts E.C.U.’s talent at inside receiver. No one returning contributor is going to be the next Harris, it’s safe to say, but the group as a whole will rather need to work together to replace his lost production. If one receiver is going to take the next step, however, it will be senior Michael Bowman (47 catches for 434 yards and 3 scores). He’s by far and away the most experienced option at the position, so E.C.U. needs a youngster or two – or three or four – to make their presence felt. Maybe that’s 6’8 sophomore Justin Jones, who’s an intimidating prospect for any cornerback. The staff is high on a number of younger guys, like redshirt freshmen Justin Hardy and Torian Richardson, as well as incoming freshman Danny Webster, who was on campus during the spring.

Meet Lance Lewis, who takes over for Harris as the lead receiving option. He therefore becomes the beneficiary of most of Davis’s attention, which is good for E.C.U. and great for Lewis’s bottom line: after making 89 grabs for 1,116 yards and a team-best 14 scores last fall, Lewis could do even more in 2011. Lewis alone would make this group great; Lewis and a few other talented options makes it terrific. One is senior Darryl Freeney, who has all the talent in the world but missed last season due to off-field difficulties. Another is junior Andrew Bodenheimer (40 for 370), whose starting role will probably go to Freeney. Add in sophomore Mike Price and senior Joe Womack and you have a wonderful batch of outside receivers.

The defense makes the move to the 3-4, which seemed to have this group in high spirits during the spring. The positive outlook will disintegrate quickly come September if significant answers aren’t addressed before kickoff. Will the move beef up the run defense? Impact the pass rush? Help get stops on third down, in the red zone? Help a secondary accustomed to giving up yards in bunches? In short, are we going to see any improvement in 2011?

Oh, we’ll see improvement. But there’s nowhere to go but up, and the defense again stands as this team’s Achilles heel. What’s really strange for me is to see how rapidly E.C.U. altered its identity, going in the span of one season from being considered a tough-running, defense-first program into a dynamically-explosive, defensively-challenged one. Let’s hope that McNeill can begin to even the score this season.

It all begins up front, which is why McNeill went so heavily after line recruits during the most recent cycle. One addition, JUCO transfer Leroy Vick, was looked at as a guy who can make an immediate difference – if not start, at least be a key part of the rotation at end; unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending injury during the spring. That puts more pressure on sophomores Matt Milner (47 tackles, 7 for loss, 3 sacks) and Derrell Johnson (40 tackles), who were forced into early duty in 2010 but will better for it this season and beyond. Keep an eye on another sophomore, Lee Pegues: he was a tackle in the previous system, but at 275 pounds has perfect size for a 3-4 end.

We’ve talked about it so many times so far this summer: when it comes to running a 3-4, you absolutely must have a viable option to play at nose guard. I’m really not sure if E.C.U. does, even if it has options in juniors Michael Brooks and Robert Jones and senior Antonio Allison. These three give the Pirates depth, but can one of the trio do the dirty work associated with playing on the nose? If anyone is going to do it, it’s Brooks. But the transition is a hard one, and if E.C.U. doesn’t get good play here the defense will again fold like a deck of cards.

The linebacker corps is athletic but unproven, so while hopes are high that this group will take to the new system it’s really hard to project what the Pirates will get. Everything would look much, much better if junior Lamar McLendon hadn’t unexpectedly quit the team in April. That doesn’t just rob E.C.U. of its best linebacker; it robs E.C.U. of much-needed depth. The outside linebackers will probably be sophomore Justin Dixon (10 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and junior Marke Powell, who is made for linebacker but spent last season at end. Dixon has speed to burn but must remain healthy, as he missed a good portion of last season and the spring. Inside, JUCO transfer Joseph Blanks is an immediate starter, joining one of a handful of options like Ty Holmes (13 tackles) and redshirt freshmen Jacob Geary and Jeremy Grove. Senior Cliff Perryman will factor into the mix somewhere, whether inside or out.

An improved pass rush will greatly benefit a secondary that was torched early and often in 2010. The cornerbacks took plenty of criticism, though it’s important to remember that no secondary can cover every play, all day, without getting some help up front. In an effort to aid the situation at cornerback, E.C.U. decided to move safety Derek Blacknall down to team with Emanuel Davis, who was again recognized as one of Conference USA’s best in 2010 despite playing on this defense — that says a lot about Davis. Junior Jacobi Jenkins earned valuable time last fall when Travis Simmons went down to injury and will be a key reserve. Senior Bradley Jacobs (80 tackles, team-best 4 interceptions) returns at strong safety, and with Blacknall’s move, it’s time for sophomore Damon Magazu’s coronation as an up-and-coming free safety in Conference USA.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line The line lost three starters to graduation, and a fourth starter, center Dalton Faulds, was kept out of spring practices due to academic difficulties. His return is expected come September, but if Faulds is unable to get his grades in order it will alter the projected starting threesome along the interior of the line. If that does come to pass, senior Doug Polochak – who received a sixth year of eligibility from the N.C.A.A. – will move inside to center from guard, where he ended last season in the starting lineup. Sophomore Willie Simmons has the type of mean streak you love from your right guard, so he’s locked into a starting role, but if Polochak does move inside you’d think that former JUCO transfer Anthony Garrett would get first crack at replacing him at left guard. There’s actually some depth along the interior, which is great. The biggest loss is first-team all-Conference USA left tackle Willie Smith, who anchored a pass defense that was extremely stingy when protecting the quarterback. Sophomore Jordan Davis looks to be next in line on the blind side, but there’s no ignoring the physical gifts held in senior Steven Baker’s 6’8, 315-pound frame. Davis’s move into the starting lineup could be put off a year if Baker puts it together. The winner of this position battle will join sophomore Grant Harner in the starting lineup.

Game(s) to watch

The schedule is very, very difficult. But E.C.U. has long viewed games against big-name programs as opportunities, so look for the Pirates to be keyed up for those three September games against B.C.S. conference competition. As was the case a year ago, the biggest Conference USA affairs are with U.C.F. and Southern Miss; also of note are the games against some of the conference’s weaker half, which E.C.U. cannot afford to lose.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There are positively no worries whatsoever with this offense, which if anything will be better than it was a year ago. Davis has exceeded the expectations that surrounded his transfer from Boston College, fulfilling his promise and more in an offense well-suited to his talents. The offensive line lost some pieces but will be better in year two in this system – the same can be said of the rest of the offense, even a receiver corps and backfield that must also replace a few key pieces. Simply put, E.C.U. won’t struggle to score against most of the teams on its schedule. But will the Pirates stop anybody? Well, 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. How could I be? 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. Of course, this factor is exacerbated exponentially by the fact that judging by last year’s results, this defense is still far away from putting a competent product on the field. It won’t matter if E.C.U. scores with abandon if the defense isn’t there, as we found out down the stretch in 2010. 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. The real contenders are far more well-rounded.

Dream season The offense actually improves, believe it or not, and the defense does just enough to lead the Pirates back into the conference title game.

Nightmare season Surprisingly, it’s the offense that takes a step back, though the defense makes only a marginal improvement. That adds up to a 3-9 season, with all of those wins coming in Conference USA play.

In case you were wondering

Where do E.C.U. fans congregate? You know I always plug the independent site first, so take a trip to BoneyardBanter.com, 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.

Word Count

Through 39 teams 107,887.

Up Next

Who is No. 81? The athletic director at tomorrow’s university was a very good second baseman during his playing days at the same school.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    Texas Tech was 15th in total offense and 114 in total defense. Tulsa was 5th in total offense and 111th in total defense. Michigan was 8th in total offense and 110th in total defense.

    If correct, I will take the Oregon Ducks.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    UCLA is next. Dan Guerrero was a star 2nd Baseman for the Bruins.

    The 100 word question was a bit misleading too. Is it supposed to be which 3 teams had the greatest discrepancy in total offense to total defense, or the 3 that had the next worst discrepancy after ECU? Because while ECU is the worst in total defense, they are a bit down the totem pole in total offense. While TT, Tulsa, and Michigan all had a higher margin between their total offense and defense (as far as wider number).

    Paul: I did mess up the phrasing. At first, I had E.C.U. with the widest margin, but after researching found that was wrong. And I forgot to rewrite the question. But you got it right. You get the Ducks.

  3. Adam Nettina says:

    Swiss cheese? C’mon Paul, you can do better. This defense was easier to slice through than triple cream brie on a summer day.

  4. Dr. Klahn says:

    I have Kent St., Houston and Baylor as the next three teams after East Carolina.

    If that is correct I’ll take Washington.

    Paul: Due to my poor editing, you also are correct. So we have two winners today. You’ve got the Huskies.

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