2012 East Carolina Preview - Ruff Times
East Carolina LB Jeremy Grove
East Carolina LB Jeremy Grove
Posted May 24, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - East Carolina Pirates

East Carolina Pirates

Preview 2012

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Ruffin McNeill Third year: 11-14
Returning Lettermen
Off. 22, Def. 25, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 20
Ten Best ECU Players
1. LB Jeremy Grove, Soph.
2. WR Justin Hardy, Soph.
3. OG Will Simmons, Jr.
4. FS Damon Magazu, Jr.
5. NT Michael Brooks, Sr.
6. DE Matt Milner, Jr.
7. RB Reggie Bullock, Sr.
8. LB Derrell Johnson, Jr.
9. WR Danny Webster, Soph.
10. WR Andrew Bodenheimer, Sr.
2012 Schedule

Sep. 1 Appalachian State
Sep. 8 at South Carolina
Sep. 15 at Southern Miss
Sep. 22 at North Carolina
Oct. 4 UTEP
Oct. 13 Memphis
Oct. 20 at UAB
Oct. 27 Navy
Nov. 3 Houston
Nov. 17 at Tulane
Nov. 23 Marshall

When head coach Ruffin McNeill was brought aboard the Pirates' ship in 2010, the goal was to take what Skip Holtz had built in Greenville, and carry it to another level. Through two tries, it has yet to happen.

East Carolina, which had won back-to-back Conference USA championships in 2008 and 2009, has dropped seven games in back-to-back years, struggling in just about every phase of the game except the passing attack. And now the program will have to develop a replacement under center for record-setting QB Dominique Davis.

The contenders, Rio Johnson, Shane Carden, Brad Wornick and Cody Keith, are all eager for their opportunity to pilot the high-flying Air Raid offense, but have precious little collective experience. Although the staff had hoped to name a successor following the spring, no one took the opportunity and ran with it.

Although the quarterbacks will be generating the most headlines over the next few months, the Pirates won't have the luxury of focusing on just one position in the offseason. They need fine-tuning all over the depth chart, while finding a way to better protect the ball.

The discipline and physicality, on both sides of the ball, which had become trademarks under Holtz are now distant memories with a new regime in charge.

It's Year 3 for McNeill & Co. Passionate fans in the Boneyard are beginning to get a little fidgety, especially after growing accustomed to competing for titles, and getting passed over by the Big East during expansion discussions.

The Pirates need something to cheer about in football this fall. Now that East Carolina has had two years to incorporate and fully digest new systems on both sides of the ball, the expectations are that the kids should be ready to operate with crisper execution than they did over the last two seasons. They better be, or else the coach and his assistants will be sweating profusely by the end of the regular season.

What to watch for on offense: The emergence of the backs. Sure, it's called the Air Raid for a reason, but that doesn't mean the Pirates don't want to establish some semblance of a running game. With a new quarterback about to be broken in, the Pirates plan to leverage the diverse skill set of its four primary backs, starter Reggie Bullock, North Carolina transfer Hunter Furr and reserves Michael Dobson and Torrance Hunt. Bullock looked headed for 1,000 yards before getting hurt. Furr got to this point of his career behind freakish combination of speed and strength.

What to watch for on defense: It's Milner time? DE Matt Milner was missed last year, even though he played in every game. Nagging injuries prevented him from being the pass rusher he was in 2010, when he appeared headed for all-conference honors. It's a new, though, and the junior feels as if he's ready to recapture his rookie form. The program sure hopes so. It needs more pressure from the first line of defense, which was non-existent last fall. If Milner can require multiple blockers, it'll serve two crucial purposes; it'll keep the linebackers from having to blitz so often, and make life a whole lot easier for a vulnerable secondary.

This team will be far better if … it dramatically cuts down on its turnovers. If the Pirates can't make better decisions, and get a tighter grip on the ball, it has little hope of improving on last season's 5-7 mark. ECU gave the ball up 35 times in 2011, more than everyone except Iowa State, which matched the Pirates' futility. There just isn't enough talent for the program to remain careless, and live to tell about it. In fact, this is the type of school that'll need to do an about-face by becoming a little more opportunistic on defense as well.

The Schedule: The Pirates aren't exactly taking it easy to kick things off. Appalachian State is hardly a true breather and then the next three games - South Carolina, Southern Miss and North Carolina - are all on the road. If that wasn't rough enough, then the schedule has a fun little date at UCF to make it four road games in five weeks. A road trip to UAB makes it five road trips in seven games, but closing out with three of the final four games at home helps.

Best Offensive Player: Sophomore WR Justin Hardy. On a team that favors the pass, Hardy is an essential component to success. Practically overnight, he's become a feel-good story in Greenville, going from one-time walk-on to the program's most complete all-around receiver. Operating out of the slot, he established a new East Carolina freshman record by catching 64 balls for 658 yards and six touchdowns. The 6-0, 185-pounder has good speed to go along with the fundamentals that make quarterbacks want to look for his number.

Best Defensive Player: Sophomore LB Jeremy Grove. How did this kid from Frederick, Md. not get scooped up by an ACC or Big East school during the recruiting process? He was a revelation for the Pirates in first year, turning a team-high 122 tackles into being named the Conference USA Defensive Freshman of the Year. An ideal inside linebacker for the Pirates, he reads and reacts well, sniffing out running plays before they have a chance to extend beyond the second level of the D.

Key players to a successful season: The quarterbacks. Whoever winds up getting the ball from Ruffin McNeill better be prepared to become the focal point of the offense. On a team that passes to set up the run, there'll be no honeymoon in Greenville. On a campus where they operate out of the Air Raid, a version of a Mike Leach attack, the quarterback is the equivalent of a point guard, quickly distributing the ball to an outside or slot receiver. If the eventual starter struggles, don't be surprised if the coaches employ a quick hook.

The season will be a success if ... East Carolina makes a return to the postseason. Last year, the Pirates were idle in December for the first time since 2005. That just can't happen again. This program has got to find a way to six, probably seven, wins in order to lock up a bonus game in the postseason. ECU was just too successful toward the end of the Skip Holtz era to string together a third consecutive losing season. If the Pirates fail to elevate above .500, heads will roll once the year is over.

Key game: Oct. 6 at UCF. The Pirates have owned the Knights over the years, winning 9-of-11, including last fall's meeting at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, 38-31. If East Carolina can maintain their dominance in the series by winning on the road, it could start thinking about an East Division title that figures to be up for grabs. The school is just 4-7 away from home under the current staff, a trend it needs to begin reversing beginning in 2012.

2011 Fun Stats:
- Rushing yards per game: East Carolina 109.1 – Opponents 174.2
- Interceptions thrown: East Carolina 20 – Opponents 7
- Red zone touchdown %: East Carolina 70% - Opponents 59%

- 2012 East Carolina Preview | 2012 East Carolina Offense
- 2012 East Carolina Defense | 2012 East Carolina Depth Chart