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2015 East Carolina Pirates Football Preview

 

Head Coach: Ruffin McNeill (sixth at ECU and overall: 37-27)

2014 Record: 8-5 overall, 5-3 AAC

Bowl Result: Birmingham Bowl: 1/3/15 – Florida 28 East Carolina 20

With the duo of Shane Carden and Justin Hardy returning, East Carolina entered the 2014 season with hopes of earning a spot in one of the coveted selection committee bowls.

Following a fast 6-1 start—which included a victory at Virginia Tech (the week after they won at Ohio State) and a second straight blowout of in-state rival North Carolina, the Pirates found themselves ranked 23rd in the initial College Football Playoff Top 25.

However, Ruffin McNeill’s club was unable to make history as it was bit by the turnover bug in a 20-10 defeat in the mud bowl at Temple and proceeded to suffer three more narrow defeats--@ Cincinnati, UCF and Florida—down the stretch.

Thus, a season that began with so much promise ended with the Pirates dropping four of their final six and stumbling to a disappointing 8-5 finish.

Shortly after the 28-20 loss to Florida in the Birmingham Bowl, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley was hired by Bob Stoops and Oklahoma. Coach “Ruff” wasted no time in naming Dave Nichol, who spent the last three seasons as the Pirates’ outside receivers coach, as Riley’s replacement.

The ECU attack will likely have a different look—particularly early in the ’15 season—but it will be more because of personnel than a change in philosophy and scheme under their new coordinator Nichol (who is a 1999 alum of Texas Tech).



East Carolina apparelThe Pirates will be replacing three-year starter Shane Carden behind center and the NCAA FBS all-time leader in receptions, Justin Hardy, at inside receiver. Carden, who signed a free agent deal with the Bears, threw for more than 4,700 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2014. Hardy, who began his career at ECU as a walk-on, totaled 387 career receptions for more than 4,500 yards. Last season, he caught 121 balls for nearly 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns.

In addition to “Cardy”—the hashtag name given to the dynamic duo prior to their senior seasons, the ECU offense—which rolled up more than 35 points and 530 yards per game in ’14—will be without deep threat Cam Worthy (6’3”, 220). Worthy, who averaged 18.5 yards per catch on 55 receptions, had breakout games against Virginia Tech (6 for 224) and Florida (8 for 130).

Redshirt sophomore Kurt Benkert, who saw limited action in three games a season ago, is the favorite to take over the reins as ECU’s signal-caller. At 6’3” and 225 pounds, Benkert brings excellent size and strength (He benches 375 and power cleans 330) to the position while also possessing the ability to hurt you with his feet.

While ECU did lose a ton of production at receiver due to the losses of Hardy and Worthy, the receiving corps is still very talented and has a chance to minimize the dropoff without the aforementioned playmakers.

Isaiah Jones, who combined to catch 140 balls for over 1,400 yards the last two seasons, will likely become the Pirates’ go-to option. Jones, who has been more of a possession receiver to this point in his career, made tremendous strength and speed gains during the offseason which will hopefully result in more explosive plays moving forward.

Trevon Brown, Davon Grayson and Jimmy Williams are other proven options out wide who will likely be significant contributors. Brown, who averaged 19 yards per catch and had four touchdowns in eight games in ’14, was limited by an injury as a freshman but brings the size and speed to the table to replace Worthy as the Pirates’ best deep option.

Tight ends Bryce Williams and Stephen Baggett—yes, the ECU attack is more diverse than the Mike Leach version of the offense—will also be viable options. Williams, who is 6’6” and more than 260 pounds, had 18 catches for 237 yards as a junior and is primed for a breakout senior campaign. With his size, expect the former walk-on to be a top option in the red zone.

With four starters returning up front on the offensive line and a stable of talented running backs, don’t be surprised if Nichol and staff place an emphasis on running the football—particularly early. The Pirates averaged just over 160 yards on the ground a season ago and with the depth up front being the best its been during the McNeill Era, ECU—under new OL coach Brad Davis—could top that in 2015.
The ECU backfield will be without homerun hitter Breon Allen, who ran for nearly 900 yards as a senior, but proven options return in Chris Hairston, Marquez Grayson and Anthony Scott returning.

While all three will certainly see significant playing time, Hairston will likely be the feature back. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2014 when he ran for 528 yards. The Winston-Salem native, who is 6’0” and 197, recorded his best game against Temple when he tallied 153 yards on 21 carries.

Grayson, who ran for 289 yards and five scores, possesses a nice blend of size and speed. Meanwhile, Scott—whose style will strike comparisons to former ECU star Chris Johnson—possesses 4.3 speed and the ability to hit the home run.

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Defensively, the Pirates lost six starters from a unit that allowed 25.8 points and 367.3 yards in 2014.

While ECU did lose key pieces such as defensive linemen Terry Williams and Crishon Rose, as well as linebackers Brandon Williams (124 TT, 13.5 TFL, 5 sacks) and Maurice Falls, it has enough talent returning that it’s not unreasonable to think the Pirates could be better in 2015.

Last year, ECU was one of the nation’s best at stopping the run (111 ypg), but its pass defense left something to be desired.
The front three will benefit from the return of end Terrell Stanley, who missed all of 2014 due to recovering from injuries sustained in a car wreck in January. Stanley, who is a senior, performed well in ’13.

Former walk-on Fred Presley, who led the team in sacks (6.0) and was also third in TFL (8.5), also returns at end. Junior Dmitri McGill, who saw reserve action in ten games last year, will look to fill the void left by Terrell Williams in the middle.

At linebacker, the Pirates are talented but very inexperienced outside of middle linebacker Zeek Bigger and Sam linebacker Montese Overton. Bigger, who has a tremendous motor, topped the team with 140 tackles as a junior. On the other hand, Overton—who has 4.3 speed—was third on the team in tackles and second in tackles for loss with 11.5. With his speed, he can really create havoc off the edge.

Last, but certainly not least, let’s take a look at the secondary—an area that has been the weakness of the ECU defense in recent years.
Senior cornerback Josh Hawkins—who started 11 games during a roller coaster junior season—has shown tremendous potential, but focus and consistency have been issues. Hawkins, who led the Pirates with five interceptions a year ago, will need to rise to the occasion and provide leadership during his final go-around.

Rocco Scarfone and DaShaun Amos, both of whom played in all 13 games last year, will battle at boundary corner.
At strong safety, Terrell Richardson who started the last two games of 2014 returns while Domonique Lennon and Travon Simmons—both of whom started a season ago—will compete at free safety.

As far as the special teams, Trevon Brown brings excellent kick return ability and punter Worth Gregory—who averaged 43.6 in ’14—has a live leg.

However, the Pirates are in desperate need of a placekicker so keep an eye on that situation.

Last season, ECU started fast (6-1) and finished slow (2-4). Don’t be surprised if it’s this other way around this year. The Pirates’ schedule is challenging early—particularly given it will be sailing the waters with an inexperienced starting quarterback. They should open with a win over Towson, but McNeill’s team will then travel to the Swamp—the first road game of four in a five week stretch. After playing the Gators, ECU will travel to Annapolis and attempt to tackle Navy’s vaunted triple option attack before returning home to face Virginia Tech. After playing the Hokies, there are trips to Dallas to play SMU and first-year coach Chad Morris before venturing to Provo to face typically strong BYU.

The back half of the slate features four home games (Tulsa, Temple, USF and Cincinnati) and shapes up nicely for ECU.

The Pirates have gone 8-5, 10-3, 8-5 over the past three seasons. Another season of at least eight wins is certainly not out of the question if Benkert can grow up quickly and minimize the big mistake. Whether ECU contends for a conference title or is trying to squeak into a bowl with some late wins will likely depend on the maturation of its new signal-caller and whether the other phases of the game can help carry the weight—especially early.

 

By Thomas "Bubba" Rosenbaum
DFN Sports Senior College Football Correspondent

Check out all of the 2015 college football previews online through College Sports Fans.

 

 

 


 


 

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