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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. 91: East Carolina

East Carolina is Blackbeard, the rest of Conference USA the dastardly British sailor.

Where does East Carolina go from here? Gone is Skip Holtz, perhaps the finest coach in school history; the new coach, the former Texas Tech assistant Ruffin McNeill, impressed many with his ability to keep the Red Raiders together during its Alamo Bowl win following Mike Leach’s dismissal. McNeill inherits an enviable position– a team coming off back-to-back conference titles — yet also sizable expectations. Making matters worse is the intimidating level of talent McNeill must replace in his first year. A new coach, new system and new starters. Not necessarily an ingredient for immediate success.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Greenville, N.C.

Nickname
Pirates

Returning starters
7 (5 offense, 2 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 38

2009 record
(9-5, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 38

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 5
    Tulsa
  • Sept. 11
    Memphis
  • Sept. 18
    at Virginia Tech
  • Oct. 2
    at U.N.C.
  • Oct. 9
    at Southern Miss
  • Oct. 16
    N.C. State
  • Oct. 23
    Marshall
  • Oct. 30
    at U.C.F.
  • Nov. 6
    Navy
  • Nov. 13
    at U.A.B.
  • Nov. 20
    at Rice
  • Nov. 27
    S.M.U.

Last year’s prediction

I’m optimistic that East Carolina will match last fall’s eight-win output, as well as take the East division for the second consecutive year. What I like most about this team is its experience: the heart of this team are its 27 seniors, 10 of whom will hold starting roles heading into the season. Talent plus experience plus solid coaching equals a very good team, one I believe stands just barely behind Houston as the top team in Conference USA. I predict E.C.U. to finish the regular season 8-4, 6-2 in conference play, and to edge out Southern Mississippi for the East division crown. The potential is there for very good things.

2009 recap

In a nutshell The Skip Holtz era ended with a second consecutive Conference USA championship. The only change from 2008 to last fall was East Carolina’s inability to beat the B.C.S. teams on its schedule; after being both West Virginia and Virginia Tech in September of 2008, the Pirates lost by at least 13 points to that pair and North Carolina. Let’s not allow that to detract from East Carolina’ season, however. At least statistically, last fall’s squad was the best of the five Holtz-coached teams. In terms of scoring, E.C.U. topped 29 points six times, including a season-high 49 points against Rice on Oct. 17. The defense did not start strong, allowing at least 30 points in back-to-back losses in September, but held nine of its last 10 opponents under 30 points. The only achievement E.C.U. did not reach was improving upon its win total, which the program had done in each of its first four seasons under Holtz.

High point A 38-32 win over Houston in the conference championship game. The win marked the second year in a row that the West division has sent an explosive offense to the title game only to see E.C.U. come out ahead. Just as they did to Tulsa in 2008, the Pirates forced Houston into a number of crippling turnovers: E.C.U. won the turnover battle by a 4-1 margin.

Low point After beating two high-profile B.C.S. conference opponents in 2008, E.C.U. went 0-3 against similar competition in 2009. West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia Tech combined to outscore the Pirates by 82-40.

Tidbit E.C.U. has won four of its last six against Top 25 opposition: over No. 21 Houston last November; over No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 8 West Virginia last September; and No. 24 Boise State in December 2007.

Former players in the N.F.L.

15 C Sean Allen (Buffalo), WR Aundrea Allison (New York Jets), WR Terrance Cooper (Kansas City), DT Kwaku Danso (Cleveland), P Matt Dodge (New York Giants), TE Davon Drew (Baltimore), QB David Garrard (Jacksonville), RB Chris Johnson (Tennessee), DT Linval Joseph (New York Giants), FB Vonta Leach (Houston), RB Dominique Lindsay (Tennessee), DT Khalif Mitchell (San Francisco), DT Jay Ross (New Orleans), OT Guy Whimper (New York Giants), DE C.J. Wilson (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Best Pittsburgh Pirates
1. SS Honus Wagner.
2. OF Barry Bonds.
3. OF Roberto Clemente.
4. 1B Willie Stargell.
5. 3B Pie Traynor.

Coaching

Ruffin McNeill (East Carolina ’80), entering his first 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 in 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. The circumstances of Leach’s dismissal, of which we are all aware, could have very well disrupted (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 last fall, 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.

Tidbit (coaching edition) What of the E.C.U. offense? Given McNeill’s close association with Texas Tech, will he carry that high-octane, spread passing attack with him to Greenville? Wouldn’t you? McNeill named the former Tech assistant Lincoln Riley, the inside receivers coach in Lubbock, as his offensive coordinator. Riley is one of four new coaches to have graduated from Texas Tech since 2004, joining offensive line coach Brandon Jones, running backs coach Clay McGuire and offensive assistant Landon Hoefer.

Players to watch

If there’s one group on offense not affected by graduation it’s the offensive line, where three starters return from a year ago. The left side of the line will be in particularly good shape: seniors Willie Smith and Cory Dowless return at left tackle and guard, respectively. Dowless will move from right guard to the left side for his final season. Smith was an honorable mention all-Conference USA selection a year ago, as was fellow senior D.J. Scott, who will start at right guard after playing right tackle in 2009. Scott’s move to the inside opens up the right tackle spot to junior Steven Baker, who played in 13 games last fall as a top reserve at both tackle spots. However, Baker finds himself in a battle for the starting role with redshirt freshman Grant Harner, who stood atop the depth chart at the conclusion of the spring. It will be difficult for E.C.U. to supplant 20o09 starers Terence Campbell and Sean Allen — two additional all-conference performers — but this line will be the least of the team’s worries this fall.

While concerns do exist, E.C.U. is not in terrible shape at the skill positions. This is especially the case at wide receiver, where the Pirates return four receivers who made at least one start in 2009. However, don’t forget that in this new spread attack, E.C.U. will feature a four-receiver set on nearly every play. Look for Dwayne Harris to have a monster senior season in the new offense. Harris might be the finest kick returner in the country — he returned three kicks for touchdowns last fall — but it’s as a receiver that he’ll become a household name across Conference USA: a year ago, Harris led the Pirates with 83 receptions, 978 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns. As one would expect in a high-powered passing attack, Harris is a threat to shatter E.C.U. receiving records. While he lines up on the inside, junior Darryl Freeney will man one of the outside spots. Last fall, Freeney finished second on the team in grabs (48), yards (718) and scores (3). Also in the mix: Joe Womack, Dre Bodenheimer, Dayon Arrington, Javon Brumsley and Reese Wiggins. Among others. East Carolina will go through every receiver on the roster.

Dominique Lindsay is gone, taking his 1,000-yard ability onto the next level. His replacement was supposed to be Brandon Jackson, who finished second to Lindsay in rushing last fall (316 yards); unfortunately, an off-field transgression forced McNeill to dismiss Jackson from the team. In worse news, McNeill also dismissed former JUCO transfer Giavanni Ruffin, whose 308 yards rushing last fall was good for third on the team. So who’s next? Senior Jonathan Williams is the likely starter, though redshirt freshman Michael Dobson will also factor into the mix — thanks largely to his ability as a receiver out of the backfield. While E.C.U. was going to miss Lindsay regardless if Jackson and Ruffin had remained on the roster, the loss of two experienced upperclassmen turns the running back spot into a concern. Of course, it’s not as if the Pirates plan on running the ball with the frequency of years past.

This year’s defense won’t resemble recent East Carolina teams, mostly due to the wholesale departure of the terrific front four that paced last season’s top defense. While the defensive line will feature an entirely new look, the secondary will remain considerably more static, particularly at cornerback. Travis Simmons is the lone returning player to have started every game of 2009: he made 52 tackles and an interception. More experience returns on the opposite side, though it remains to be seen if senior Dekota Marshall, injured against Virginia Tech last November, will be at full health come September. The job will fall to junior Emanuel Davis, who started eight of the last nine games of 2009.

Replacing all-Conference safety Van Eskridge, he of the six-interception senior season, will be a tall task. Stepping into the void is Bradley Jacobs, a former JUCO transfer who impressed during spring play. Jacobs does not lack for physicality, as his time on the junior college ranks showed, but he won’t duplicate the role Eskridge played in the passing game. Jacobs won’t technically step in for Eskridge, instead grabbing the starting strong safety role, leaving the open free safety spot for fellow junior Derek Blacknall.

There will be a major competition all along the defensive line, befitting a group that lost a quartet of all-conference caliber performers. Take the two starting defensive end spots, for instance, where as many as seven returning players are in the running to grab a starting role. While junior Maurice Mercer and redshirt freshman Matt Milner stand atop the depth chart as E.C.U. enters the summer, seniors Josh Smith and A.J. Johnson remain in the mix, as does sophomore Marke Powell. McNeill also moved Korey Reynolds and Michael Byrd to the defensive line from tight end, illustrating just how thin McNeill believes his team to be at end.

The situation is less dire on the interior of the line. Junior Josh Smith will step into the starting lineup after serving as the line’s top reserve a year ago, making 26 tackles and 4 sacks. Only the talent of Jay Ross and Linval Joseph, last year’s starters, prevented Smith from breaking into the starting rotation. He’ll be joined up front by fellow junior Antonio Allison, who many had penciled in for good things last fall but was lost to a foot injury two games into the year.

I really don’t want to sound like a broken record. Yet the Pirates have three more starters to replace at linebacker; middle linebacker Nick Johnson, who recorded 201 tackles over his junior and senior seasons combined, and outside linebacker Chris Mattocks will be especially difficult to replace. Two players who started at least one game last fall will likely move into the starting lineup in 2010: senior Dustin Lineback will start on the weak side, while junior Matt Thompson will compete on the strong side. It’s Wes Pittman, however, a former safety, that currently stands ahead of Thompson on the depth chart.

Position battles to watch

After struggling academically at Boston College, Dominique Davis needs to hit the books.

Quarterback Despite losing multiple-year starter Patrick Pickney, East Carolina’s quarterback situation is far from dire. While only one potential starter has earned meaningful snaps on the college level, the Pirates have a number of options to choose from. All are young, however. The leading contender as E.C.U. left spring practice was sophomore Brad Womick, a former walk-on who has progressed nicely after arriving on campus two years with very little fanfare. While Womick has not officially been named the starter — far, far from it — he did outplay fellow sophomore Josh Jordan and freshman Rio Johnson for most of spring ball. The Pirates will welcome three more competitors for the spot in the fall, two of whom are true freshmen: Desi Brown and Shane Carden. It’s the third incoming recruit that has E.C.U. excited: JUCO transfer Dominique Davis, the former starter at Boston College. Davis was projected to start for the Eagles last fall before academics cost him his eligibility for the entirety of the 2009 campaign; rather than sit out the entire season at B.C., Davis opted to enter the JUCO ranks and return to the F.B.S. level in 2010. Boston College’s loss has been E.C.U.’s gain; in my mind, Davis is the favorite to start the season opener in September. His only negative is an unfamiliarity with the system: while Womick, for example, is also new to the spread offense, he’ll have a leg up due to his spring experience.

Game(s) to watch

Few schedules are as interesting. E.C.U. will get its yearly shot at premier programs like Virginia Tech and Navy, but that non-conference schedule may make things difficult. In Conference USA play, games at Southern Mississippi, U.C.F. and U.A.B. will determine whether the Pirates can repeat as division champions.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. I don’t think that’s going to happen in 2010. The real question, the answer to which won’t be readily available until well into next season, is whether McNeill can duplicate his predecessor’s success.

Dream season Doubters – me – are proven wrong in East Carolina’s 9-3 finish, which includes another East division title.

Nightmare season The staff changes and the losses to graduation contribute to a 3-9 finish, the program’s first losing season since 2005.

In case you were wondering

Where do East Carolina 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.

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 in the comment field below; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Here’s the question:

Last fall saw East Carolina set a home attendance record for the second consecutive season. In 2008, the Pirates hosted a program-high 42,016 fans per home game; last fall, E.C.U. had 292,191 fans pass through its gates, a school record. Last season’s home attendance average of 41,742 fans was the third-most of any non-B.C.S. conference program. Can you name the two non-B.C.S. conference programs to feature a larger average home crowd in 2009?

Teams already spoken for: Texas Tech (Freakville), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho) and Virginia Tech (James).

Up Next

Who is No. 90? The land-grant act that gave our next university its campus shares its name with the school’s men’s basketball coach.

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Comments

  1. Dr. Klahn says:

    BYU and Utah, 64,236 and 45,155 respectively.

    Paul: Nice job, doc. Please leave your team in the comment field below. A&M, Texas Tech and Virginia Tech are already spoken for.

  2. David says:

    …and #90 is the other FBS school in the Beehive State.

  3. Noefli says:

    Let’s all give Dr. Klahn a big hand!

  4. katster says:

    Yeah, I knew BYU was one of them, was trying to figure out the other. :)

  5. Dr. Klahn says:

    I choose Washington.

  6. Mike says:

    It was the Morrill Act, and Stew Morrill coaches hoops at Utah State.

  7. keith says:

    Great write up. I like the format.

  8. Conan says:

    7-5 and to the DC Bowl.

    Super Lock!

  9. Stephen says:

    Reasonable outlook but it is “Wornick” not “Womick”.

  10. Robert says:

    With Utah jioning the PAC 10 in 2012 and ECU adding 7,000 new seats to Dowdy Fickland stadium it looks like ECU will firmly keep the number two spot for attendence of non BCS football programs .

  11. Mike says:

    I chose Utah and Boise St.

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