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CFN Preview 2013 - East Carolina Pirates
East Carolina WR Justin Hardy
East Carolina WR Justin Hardy
Posted Jul 28, 2013 2013 Preview - East Carolina Pirates

East Carolina Pirates

Preview 2013

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Ruffin McNeill Fourth year: 19-19
Returning Lettermen
Off. 19, Def. 26, ST 5
Lettermen Lost: 17
Ten Best ECU Players
1. WR Justin Hardy, Jr.
2. QB Shane Carden, Jr.
3. OG Will Simmons, Sr.
4. RB Vintavious Cooper, Sr.
5. DE Derrell Johnson, Sr.
6. LB Jeremy Grove, Jr.
7. RT Adhem Elsawi, Sr.
8. CB Adonis Armstrong, Sr.
9. DE Lee Pegues, Sr.
10. PK Warren Harvey, Jr.
2013 Schedule
8/31 Old Dominion
9/7 Florida Atlantic
9/14 Virginia Tech
9/28 at North Carolina
10/5 at Middle Tennessee
10/12 at Tulane
10/19 Southern Miss
11/2 at FIU
11/9 Tulsa
11/16 UAB
11/23 at NC State
11/30 at Marshall
The Pirates have their left eye, non-patched fixed on a singular treasure this season--a Conference USA championship in their final season in the league.

East Carolina has spent the first three years of the Ruffin McNeill era attempting to recapture its form when Skip Holtz was on the sidelines and league titles were a realistic and perennial goal. The Pirates are getting closer. After losing seven games in each of McNeill's first two seasons, the program went 8-5, coming within a game of winning the East Division and playing in the conference championship game. With 16 starters back, eight on each side of the ball, the Pirates feel poised to go from divisional contenders to division winners.

ECU will once again be spearheaded by the play of the offense, a wide-open Air Raid attack that begins this season in far better shape than it did last fall. Most of the key parts return to a balanced offense that produced at least 34 points in five of last season's final seven games. QB Shane Carden was revelatory coming off the bench last September, and is going to reunite with top receiver Justin Hardy. RB Vintavious Cooper was a surprise 1,000-yard rusher in his debut out of junior college, but a March suspension has left his final year up in the air.

The D should be better based on experience alone, but how much better? The Pirates yielded at least 35 points six times in 2012, including the final two games, and genuine star power will come at a premium on this side of the ball. The unit did play well during the spring, though there are no guarantees that it'll translate to the fall. New coordinator Rick Smith inherits a unit that'll be underrated in the front seven, yet overmatched at times in the defensive backfield.

After this season, it's off to the American Athletic Conference in 2014 for the Pirates, which had initially been passed over during the first round of expansion. East Carolina is hoping to pocket a championship trophy in its goody bag on the way out of a suddenly depleted Conference USA. The program has been steadily building to a point where it can finally talk titles again.

What to watch for on offense: Malice Cooper. The Pirates need 1,000-yard rusher Vintavious Cooper on the field this fall, but he's currently in the University hoosegow following a March suspension. All indications are that he'll be back allowed back to the team later in the year, but it has yet to be decided how much time, if any, he's going to miss. And when Cooper does return, just how much rust must be shaken off after not practicing with the rest of the squad during the spring?

What to watch for on defense: The run D to rank among the best in Conference USA. Forget last year's mediocre numbers, which were greatly skewed by one horrific game versus option-based Navy. Remove the game with the Mids, and East Carolina would have ranked among the top 20 schools in America. The front seven may not have household names, but it shouldn't be overlooked. The line is big and quick, and the linebackers, led by Derrell Johnson and Jeremy Grove, will clean up plenty of messes.

This team will be far better if … it locates a higher level of efficiency on defense. The D basically needs to come up big when it matters most in 2013, namely on third downs and in the red zone. The Pirates just didn't force enough punts and field goals last year, the underlying reason for so many defensive breakdowns. The defense's objective this fall will be simple--get the ball back to the high-octane offense as quickly as possible. The longer the defense is on the field, the less likely it is that ECU is winning football games.

The Schedule: The Pirates aren’t taking it easy with the non-conference slate going to North Carolina and NC State to go along with a home date against Virginia Tech and the season opener against an Old Dominion team that dominated the FCS last season. With four road games in a five game midseason stretch, there’s only one home game against Southern Miss between September 14th and November 9th. Having to face Tulsa from the West is a rough break, but at least the game is at home. If everything goes according to plan, there shouldn’t be any problems in conference play - outside of the showdown against the Golden Hurricane – until the regular season finale at Marshall. That could be for the East title.

Best Offensive Player: Junior WR Justin Hardy. It's not where you start, rather where you finish that matters most. Hardy began his Pirate career as a walk-on, but will likely end it as one of the most prolific pass-catchers in school history. The crisp and sure-handed inside receiver far and away led the team in 2012 with 88 receptions for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns. Although Hardy doesn't do one thing exceptionally well, he also doesn't make mistakes, running great routes and giving his quarterback a clean target with which to connect.

Best Defensive Player: Senior LB Derrell Johnson. Johnson used to line up at defensive end. Today he's an outside linebacker. At the end of the day, he's just a really pass rusher, regardless of where he starts a play. The instinctive 6-2, 264-pounder earned All-Conference USA Second Team honors in 2012 by making 62 tackles, 11 stops for loss, a team-high seven sacks, eight quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries. Johnson is big and physical, yet is also quick enough to cause havoc in opposing backfields.

Key players to a successful season: The defensive backs. The front seven is actually pretty good, and will surprise teams this season. The secondary, though, is the weakest link of the defense, if not the entire squad. If East Carolina is going to abbreviated more drives than it did in 2012, it'll be up to the pass defense to play tighter in coverage, and to bat away a few more balls. A repeat of last year's performance from the defensive backfield will force the Pirates to compete in shootouts, week-in and week-out.

The season will be a success if ... East Carolina wins a championship in its final year in Conference USA. It's there for the taking, especially UCF is no longer around to provide a roadblock in the East Division. The Pirates harbor as much talent as anyone in the league, so why not shoot for an automatic Liberty Bowl berth? Considering all of the veterans at key spots, anything less than a second straight bowl game will be a big disappointment.

Key game: Nov. 30 at Marshall. The Pirates and the Thundering Herd will begin the year as the two best teams in the East Division, so it goes to figure that the regular season finale could decide one spot in the following week's Conference USA Championship Game. This one shapes up as an exciting matchup between two of the league's better passers, Marshall's Rakeem Cato and ECU's Shane Carden. Weather permitting, the battle in Huntington could go down as one of the league's most entertaining games of 2013.

2012 Fun Stats:
- Time of possession: East Carolina 31:12 – Opponents 28:48
- Interceptions thrown: East Carolina 14 – Opponents 10
- Red zone touchdown %: East Carolina 72% - Opponents 62%

- 2013 East Carolina Preview | 2013 East Carolina Offense
- 2013 East Carolina Defense | 2013 East Carolina Depth Chart