COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
C-USA East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Ruffin McNeill, 20-19 (3+ years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lincoln Riley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rick Smith
The Pirates should again be a swashbuckling unit with the return of junior quarterback Shane Carden, decorated wide receiver Justin Hardy and senior running back Vintavious Cooper. They’ll operate behind a veteran offensive line in what should be one of the most explosive and efficient offenses in Conference USA.
The Pirates averaged 31.5 points per game last season and ranked sixth in the country in red zone efficiency (92.6 percent). Carden won the starting job in the third week and went on to account for 30 of ECU’s subsequent 44 touchdowns. His 3,116 yards passing were the third-most in school history, and he threw for multiple scores in six of the last seven games, including five against Memphis.
Hardy earned first-team All-C-USA honors after grabbing 88 passes for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s the most dangerous of the receivers, but Danny Webster (five TDs), Jabril Soloman (24.1 yards per catch), Reese Wiggins and 6'8", 258-pound hybrid Justin Jones are also proven commodities.
Cooper, who was Conference-USA Newcomer of the Year after rushing for 1,049 yards, sat out all spring, suspended for a violation of university policies. He was reinstated to the team in early June and should have a big season in East Carolina's offense. There is quality depth at the position. Terrell Lane, the leading junior college rusher last year, joins the fray.
ECU boasts some solid experience on the line in senior tackle Adhem Elsawi, All-C-USA second-team guard Will Simmons, and reliable Jordan Davis.
Ruffin McNeill replaced defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell shortly after ECU’s 43–34 loss to UL Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl. Last season, the Pirates gave up 430.7 yards per game and were especially bad against the pass (275.7 ypg). Down the stretch, they gave up 341 yards passing to Houston, 293 to Tulane, 419 to Marshall and 324 to UL Lafayette.
The secondary was new defensive coordinator Rick Smith’s primary concern in the spring. Smith did not, however, get a chance to work with the Pirates’ top defensive back. Safety Damon Magazu, an honorable mention All-C-USA pick in 2012, was sidelined with a back injury. He is expected back in the fall. Michael Dobson, a converted tailback, played his way into the rotation in the spring.
Meanwhile the Pirates’ front seven could be special, led by linebackers Derrell Johnson and Jeremy Grove and defensive end Lee Pegues. Johnson is a four-year starter who led the team with seven sacks last year, a figure that could go up in Smith’s new scheme. Johnson earned second-team all-conference honors, while Grove and the hard-charging, 6'2", 287-pound Pegues were both honorable mention choices.
Warren Harvey hit 15-of-20 field goal attempts and all 50 of his PATs. Senior Trent Tignor was 29th nationally with a 42.8-yard punting average, though the Pirates only finished 55th in the nation in net punting. Hardy was an all-conference pick as a punt returner with a 8.8-yard average.
Carden seems primed for another big year in coordinator Lincoln Riley’s spread offense. Hardy is a dynamic, game-changing player, and NFL scouts are drooling over Jones, who could bust out big this season.
The question marks are on defense, where Smith begins his second tour of duty at East Carolina. He was the school’s defensive backs coach from 2005-09 and has 32 years of experience. If he can shore up the pass defense, East Carolina will be in position to earn its seventh bowl bid in the last eight years and contend for the Conference USA East Division title.