COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011 PRESEASON TOP 25
C-USA East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Ruffin McNeill, 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lincoln Riley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian Mitchell
East Carolina to lean on defense as Ruffin McNeill looks to lead Pirates back to a bowl game.
The high-powered unit that ranked among the FBS passing leaders the last two years seems a shadow of itself without quarterback Dominique Davis. There are also questions in the backfield and along the line. Davis’ backup Rio Johnson and former scout-teamer Shane Carden had the best handle on the wide-open job in the spring — that is, until Carden went down with a finger injury late in the proceedings.
There’s also some sorting out at running back, where returnees Reggie Bullock, Torrance Hunt and Michael Dobson will alternate with North Carolina transfer/short-yardage specialist Hunter Furr.
The wideouts are deep and talented, and 6'8" junior receiver/tight end hybrid Justin Jones is already making NFL scouts take notice. Justin Hardy is a big play waiting to happen, and Andrew Bodenheimer has sure hands. Reece Wiggins came on strong late last year, and steady Danny Webster is back from knee injury.
The offensive line allowed an average of 2.5 sacks and generated less than 110 rushing yards per game last year. That’s a concern, but not as big a concern as somehow replicating Davis’ deeds. The Pirates hoisted their sails for 286.1 yards per game through the air (20th in the nation), and Davis could make plays with his feet, too. Count on a more conservative and careful approach this year. The Pirates were 119th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.17 per game) last season.
Yeah, the switch to the 3-4 worked like a charm, as the Pirates improved from a whopping 478 yards per game allowed in 2010 to just over 376 last fall. The shift took advantage of a glut of athletic linebacker/end types, including the Conference USA Freshman of the Year, middle linebacker Jeremy Grove, and this year’s next big thing, converted end-to-backer Derrell Johnson.
Nose tackle Michael Brooks anchors the front and is one of six returning starters. He is joined by ends Lee Pegues and Matt Milner. Seniors Leonard Paulk and Jacobi Jenkins return at the corners, and Damon Magazu makes things happen at free safety.
The linebackers, including Daniel Drake and up-and-comers like Jake Geary, Maurice Falls and Montese Overton, will come at opponents in waves.
Untested sophomore Warren Harvey has a leg up on the kicking job, but the punting game is a major question mark. Special teams coordinator Kirk Doll has been brought aboard to shore up this area, particularly ragged coverage units, which will focus on speed as a solution. Derrick Harris and Wiggins headline a traditionally strong Pirates return game.
Here’s a twist to put a smile on the Jolly Roger — it’s the defense that will decide how far East Carolina goes. Most of the big stat defenders are back, and they’re in the second year of a system that obviously suits them.
The offense, rather than out-gunning opponents and dominating C-USA, will try not to muck it up this time around. The first step is coach Ruffin McNeill settling on a quarterback who can keep turnovers at a minimum and maximize a pretty good receiving corps. Improved special teams play will augment the emphasis on defense, and limiting penalties is another key.
East Carolina’s passionate fan base is counting on a return to the bowl circuit after missing out last year despite a fast finish. Bowl-bound the previous five seasons, the proud Pirates may see someone walking the plank if they fail again.