2013 ECU football's 10 things to know: Pirates have experience and momentum

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Ruffin McNeill comes across as one of the nicest coaches in college football, but a pretty mean, experienced ECU team could be the favorite to win the C-USA East in 2013, at least if that bendy defense stiffens a bit.

Confused? Check out the glossary here.

1. Regress, then progress

Quite a bit of what I wrote about Rice last week can also be applied to East Carolina. Coach looking like a dead man walking in early October? Kind of, yeah. Major rally in the second half of the season? Check. Unlikely momentum heading into 2013? Absolutely. Tons of experience filling the two-deep? Yes.

Both teams won five of six to finish the regular season and looked thoroughly decent in doing so, and while Rice returns a bit more experience overall, ECU has plenty to burn.

In a conference full of semi-interesting and flawed Conference USA programs -- I'm currently struggling to differentiate between FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennesseee, North Texas, Southern Miss, Tulane, UAB, UTEP, and UTSA in any major way, really -- it appears ECU has a leg up in this year's East Division. I like Rice and Tulsa in the West, and I'm not sure what to think of Marshall yet (we'll see in tomorrow's preview), but if a new defensive coordinator can do anything with a unit that was pretty consistently below average in 2012, Ruffin McNeill's seasoned Pirates should have a major role to play in who reaches the C-USA championship game.

2012 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 90
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
1-Sep Appalachian State 35-13 W 19.2 - 38.5 L
8-Sep at South Carolina 10-48 L 34.6 - 34.8 L
15-Sep at Southern Miss 24-14 W 11.4 - 23.9 L
22-Sep at North Carolina 6-27 L 17.7 - 26.2 L
29-Sep UTEP 28-18 W 27.6 - 19.7 W
4-Oct at Central Florida 20-40 L 28.6 - 36.3 L
13-Oct Memphis 41-7 W 30.9 - 20.3 W
20-Oct at UAB 42-35 W 39.8 - 35.9 W
27-Oct Navy 28-56 L 24.7 - 47.6 L
3-Nov Houston 48-28 W 29.6 - 25.3 W
17-Nov at Tulane 28-23 W 24.5 - 22.2 W
23-Nov Marshall 65-59 W 36.8 - 35.5 W
22-Dec vs. UL-Lafayette 34-43 L 28.2 - 35.7 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 31.5 47 31.6 89
Adj. Points Per Game 27.2 71 30.9 90

2. After a long spring and summer, you determine your starters...

...and two games into the season, you've made some pretty significant changes. Quarterback Rio Johnson and running back Michael Dobson were ECU's starters in the backfield when the season began versus Appalachian State. Johnson won a lengthy battle with Shane Carden in the offseason but threw three interceptions in 29 passes versus South Carolina and was benched, while Dobson was mostly ineffective and finished third on the team in carries. He's now a defensive back.

The change from Johnson to Carden, and from Dobson to Reggie Bullock to Vintavious Cooper eventually began to turn the tide for an ECU offense that look absolutely dreadful for most of September.

Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Opponent 30.9, East Carolina 20.7 (minus-10.2)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 9 games): Opponent 30.9, East Carolina 30.1 (minus-0.8)

The defense was pretty high-variance overall -- it looked great against UTEP, Memphis, and Tulane and was a horror show against UCF, UAB, Marshall, and especially Navy -- but its average didn't change much as the season progressed. The offense, however, improved by more than a touchdown over the season's final two months. And with Carden, Cooper, four of the top five receivers, and five linemen with starting experience returning, one would think that the Pirates' performance level from mid-October onward could be maintained into 2013.

Offense

Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 56 79 76 81
RUSHING 92 103 104 103
PASSING 36 70 54 77
Standard Downs 75 75 77
Passing Downs 85 78 87
Redzone 59 65 50
Q1 Rk 83 1st Down Rk 87
Q2 Rk 89 2nd Down Rk 103
Q3 Rk 69 3rd Down Rk 73
Q4 Rk 107

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards Comp
Rate
TD INT Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Shane Carden 6'2, 218 Jr. ** (5.2) 273 413 3,116 66.1% 23 10 29 6.6% 6.6
Rio Johnson


46 72 435 63.9% 2 4 0 0.0% 6.0
Cody Keith 6'3, 190 So. *** (5.7)






Kurt Benkert 6'3, 204 Fr. *** (5.5)






3. Carden came on strong

Shane Carden was the No. 1 quarterback for most of the year, but while the offense did improve under his watch, it took a little while.

Carden through 5 games: 70-for-115 (61%), 693 yards, 3 TD, 4 INT
Carden's last 8 games: 203-for-298 (68%), 2,423 yards, 20 TD, 6 INT

He completed 48 of 68 passes for 694 yards and seven touchdowns versus Memphis and UAB, 31 of 43 for 305 yards, four touchdowns and a pick against Houston, and, in a defining performance, 38 of 47 passes for 439 yards, three scores and no picks in a 65-59 win over Marshall. Johnson, seeing the writing on the wall, left the team, which means that it's Carden's show. Former star recruit Cody Keith waits in the wings, but one assumes Carden would have to something pretty drastically bad (or get hurt) to lose his job this time around.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
TD Adj.
POE
Vintavious Cooper RB 5'9, 200 Sr. ** (5.2) 200 1,049 5.2 4.4 7 +2.7
Reggie Bullock RB 80 387 4.8 3.1 6 -1.4
Michael Dobson RB


62 190 3.1 2.5 1 -12.4
Shane Carden QB 6'2, 218 Jr. ** (5.2) 56 288 5.1 2.5 8 +0.4
Hunter Furr RB 12 43 3.6 1.6 0 -1.3
Chris Hairston RB 6'0, 192 So. ** (5.4)





Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Yds/
Target
Target
Rate
%SD Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Justin Hardy WR-Y 6'0, 186 Jr. NR 123 88 1104 71.5% 9.0 26.6% 70.7% 8.9 123.5
Andrew Bodenheimer WR-Z 51 36 371 70.6% 7.3 11.0% 64.7% 7.5 41.5
Danny Webster WR-H 5'10, 180 Jr. ** (5.4) 49 34 332 69.4% 6.8 10.6% 53.1% 6.8 37.1
Reese Wiggins WR-X 5'11, 193 Sr. *** (5.6) 42 25 208 59.5% 5.0 9.1% 54.8% 4.8 23.3
Justin Jones WR-Y 6'8, 277 Sr. *** (5.6) 41 25 346 61.0% 8.4 8.9% 46.3% 8.3 38.7
Derrick Harris WR-H 33 22 217 66.7% 6.6 7.1% 60.6% 6.6 24.3
Jabril Solomon WR-X 6'2, 189 So. *** (5.7) 32 17 410 53.1% 12.8 6.9% 65.6% 12.8 45.9
Vintavious Cooper RB 5'9, 200 Sr. ** (5.2) 31 26 230 83.9% 7.4 6.7% 48.4% 7.5 25.7
Michael Dobson RB


27 23 194 85.2% 7.2 5.8% 44.4% 7.0 21.7
Reggie Bullock RB 16 13 53 81.3% 3.3 3.5% 62.5% 3.2 5.9
Lance Ray WR-Z 6'2, 208 Sr. *** (5.5) 9 4 16 44.4% 1.8 1.9% 77.8% 1.9 1.8
Zico Pasut RB/TE 6'3, 250 Sr. *** (5.5) 3 3 27 100.0% 9.0 0.6% 33.3% 10.2 3.0
Antonio Cannon WR-Z 6'2, 180 So. *** (5.6) 3 1 7 33.3% 2.3 0.6% 100.0% 1.4 0.8
Quataye Smyre WR-H 5'10, 170 RSFr. *** (5.5)








DaQuan Barnes WR-Z 6'1, 188 RSFr. NR







Darren Dowdell TE 6'4, 225 Fr. *** (5.5)








4. Hello, playmakers

For the season as a whole, ECU's explosiveness rankings (PPP+) were pretty terrible. On the ground, ECU was neither efficient nor explosive, but a high-percentage passing attack was often done in by the simple lack of big plays. That did shift as the season progressed, however. Vintavious Cooper had a pretty tremendous eight-game stretch (from UNC to Tulane, Cooper rushed for 893 yards, 5.8 per carry) before fading late, but most of the play-making seemed to come from a big-time No. 1 receiver and a reserve.

Then-sophomore inside receiver Justin Hardy combined the lovely catch rate one expects from an inside receiver in an Air Raid-tinged offense (72 percent) with solid big-play ability; he caught 17 passes for 388 yards in a three-week span in October, then caught 16 passes for 171 yards against Marshall. Meanwhile, then-freshman Jabril Solomon made the most of his limited opportunities. He caught five passes for 170 yards in four games in October and caught seven for 171 in the final three games. He is listed as the first-string X receiver this season, and his presence should complement Hardy's nicely. If ECU can get anything from any number of other former three-star recruits -- Lincoln Riley's spread has certainly attracted interest from receiver recruits in the area, though it does bear mentioning that ECU ran more in 2012 than it had been in previous years -- this should be the best passing game ECU has had in three years.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 94.8 3.16 3.17 40.1% 74.4% 16.5% 109.0 3.5% 6.6%
Rank 91 27 65 52 29 24 54 41 66
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Career Starts/Honors/Notes
Will Simmons RG 6'5, 342 Sr. *** (5.6) 25 career starts; 2012 2nd All-CUSA
Jordan Davis LG 6'3, 297 Sr. ** (4.9) 24 career starts
Adhem Elsawi RT 6'5, 308 Sr. NR 20 career starts
Grant Harner RT 20 career starts
Robert Jones RT 13 career starts
Josh Clark C 12 career starts
Taylor Hudson C 6'5, 300 Jr. ** (5.4) 7 career starts
Drew Gentry LG 6'6, 317 Jr. ** (5.4) 1 career start
Keifer Neal LG 6'5, 327 Jr. ** (5.4)
Chaz Lowery RT 6'5, 297 So. ** (5.4)
Isaac Harris LT 6'7, 304 So. ** (5.2)
C.J. Struyk C 6'2, 280 So. NR
Tre Robertson RG 6'5, 325 So. ** (5.3)
Ryan Revia LT 6'6, 313 RSFr. ** (5.3)
J.T. Boyd C 6'4, 280 RSFr. ** (5.4)
Marquis Wallace OL 6'5, 305 Jr. *** (5.5)

5. An untested, effective line

ECUs' raw line rankings -- 27th in Standard Downs line yards per carry, 29th in Power Success Rate (short yardage success), 24th in Stuff Rate (avoidance of tackles for loss in the run game) -- suggest a pretty high-quality performance from the Pirates' line. The opponent-adjusted line stats (91st in Adj. Line Yards), however, tells you that ECU didn't exactly face much competition from stout defensive lines, at least not after the South Carolina game.

Still if success breeds future success, then signs point to a decent line in 2013; three two-year (or nearly two-year) starters return, including all-conference guard Will Simmons. And while there are three ACC teams on the 2013 schedule, it's not like Conference USA is loaded with many fearsome defensive fronts.

Defense

Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 89 82 91 77
RUSHING 54 72 83 66
PASSING 110 78 98 71
Standard Downs 82 93 81
Passing Downs 80 82 75
Redzone 87 91 83
Q1 Rk 96 1st Down Rk 95
Q2 Rk 108 2nd Down Rk 112
Q3 Rk 58 3rd Down Rk 66
Q4 Rk 107

6. Hello, Rick Smith

In the three years before Ruffin McNeill was hired as ECU's head coach and brought Brian Mitchell in as his defensive coordinator, East Carolina's average Def. F/+ ranking was 40th, with a peak of 22nd in 2008. In the last three years, the Pirates' average ranking has been 90th; after a rebound to 71st in 2011, ECU fell back to 91st in 2012, and Mitchell was let go. McNeill called on an old face to restore success: Rick Smith, Skip Holtz's defensive backs coach at ECU from 2005-09, now takes the reins of the defense. It appears he will maintain Mitchell's 3-4 alignment, but he is tasked with stiffening up what was a far-too-flexible defense in 2012. The Pirates prevented big plays reasonably well but bent far too much for a bend-don't-break approach to work, especially in the secondary.

7. Opponents passed a lot

Overall, ECU's Rushing S&P+ and Passing S&P+ rankings were about the same -- 72nd and 78th, respectively -- but opponents had no problem with the idea of picking on the pass defense. They threw three percent more than expected on standard downs and seven percent more on passing downs, meaning they had no fear for either the ECU pass rush (which wasn't awful) or a bendable set of cornerbacks. The safeties were, in theory, pretty decent at big-play prevention, but ECU just couldn't get off the field and faded dramatically as each half progressed.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 96.5 3.05 3.11 39.5% 63.6% 17.4% 96.9 4.3% 6.6%
Rank 73 86 48 65 38 90 64 71 58
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Terry Williams NT 6'1, 322 Jr. ** (5.4) 11 32.5 4.5% 5.5 1 0 3 1 0
Lee Pegues DE 6'2, 294 Sr. *** (5.5) 13 26.5 3.7% 4.5 0 0 0 0 1
Michael Brooks DE 11 23.0 3.2% 3.5 2 1 0 0 0
Terrell Stanley DE 6'2, 266 So. ** (5.4) 13 20.5 2.8% 4 2.5 0 6 0 1
Chrishon Rose NT 6'4, 299 Jr. ** (5.1) 13 13.5 1.9% 0.5 0 0 0 0 0
Matt Milner DE 6'4, 256 Sr. ** (5.1) 12 6.5 0.9% 1.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
John Lattimore DE 7 5.5 0.8% 2 1 0 0 0 0
Johnathon White DE 6'4, 283 So. ** (5.2) 6 4.5 0.6% 0.5 0 0 0 0 0
Justin Dixon DE 6'1, 275 Sr. **** (5.9) 2 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jeton Beavers DE 6'5, 266 So. ** (5.3)

Demetri McGill NT 6'1, 300 Fr. *** (5.5)






Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jeremy Grove ILB 6'1, 240 Jr. ** (5.4) 13 63.0 8.7% 4.5 0 0 0 2 0
Derrell Johnson OLB 6'2, 264 Sr. ** (5.2) 13 44.5 6.1% 11 7 0 0 0 2
Kyle Tudor ILB 6'3, 242 Sr. ** (5.2) 13 41.5 5.7% 2 1 0 2 1 0
Gabriel Woullard OLB 6'3, 227 Sr. *** (5.6) 13 34.5 4.8% 5 3.5 1 0 0 0
Daniel Drake ILB 11 29.5 4.1% 4 2 0 0 0 1
Montese Overton OLB 6'3, 220 So. ** (5.4) 8 21.5 3.0% 3.5 1 0 1 0 1
Ty Holmes ILB 6'1, 235 Sr. ** (4.9) 13 19.0 2.6% 1 0 1 2 1 0
Maurice Falls OLB 6'2, 274 Jr. ** (5.2) 13 15.0 2.1% 2.5 2.5 0 1 3 1
Zeek Bigger ILB 6'2, 228 So. *** (5.5) 13 13.5 1.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Chris Baker OLB 6 5.5 0.8% 1 1 0 0 0 0
Jake Geary OLB 6'3, 243 Jr. *** (5.5) 9 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Brandon Williams ILB 6'1, 240 Jr. NR 10 0.5 0.1% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Tristan Mumford LB 6'1, 225 Fr. *** (5.5)

Devaris Brunson LB 6'0, 206 Fr. *** (5.5)






Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Damon Magazu FS 5'11, 204 Sr. ** (5.2) 13 62.0 8.6% 0 0 1 6 0 0
Chip Thompson SS 6'0, 216 Sr. *** (5.5) 13 43.0 5.9% 1 0 3 1 0 1
Leonard Paulk CB 12 37.5 5.2% 2 1 0 6 0 0
Adonis Armstrong CB 5'10, 182 Sr. *** (5.6) 13 37.0 5.1% 0.5 0 1 14 0 1
Jacobi Jenkins CB 9 36.0 5.0% 1 0 0 11 2 0
Lamar Ivey SS 6'1, 196 Jr. *** (5.5) 13 19.0 2.6% 0 0 1 2 0 0
Justin Venable FS 11 13.5 1.9% 0 0 0 1 1 1
Josh Hawkins CB 5'10, 183 So. NR 12 9.5 1.3% 1 0 1 3 0 0
Rocco Scarfone CB 5'11, 182 So. ** (5.4) 12 8.0 1.1% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Desi Brown FS 6'2, 215 Jr. *** (5.5) 10 7.5 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kris Sykes CB 9 4.5 0.6% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Cody Lyon S 9 2.5 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Michael Dobson DB 6'0, 191 Sr. *** (5.6)

DaShaun Amos CB 6'1, 172 RSFr. ** (5.4)

Detric Allen CB 6'0, 190 Jr. *** (5.5)






8. Cleaning up messes

Again, ECU's PPP+ rankings suggest that big plays weren't as much of a problem for the ECU pass defense as allowing 12-yard pass after 12-yard pass. Safeties Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson seemed to play their "last line of defense" role reasonably well, but Smith, who also takes over as defensive backs coach, must figure out how to coax more consistency out of a unit that seemed to possess decent play-making ability at times. Corner Adonis Armstrong defensed 15 passes in 2012, while Magazu and Thompson chipped in another 11. Dobson moves from running back to defensive back to plump up the depth a bit, and junior college transfer Detric Allen could certainly work into the rotation pretty quickly.

The front seven possesses a wealth of both size experience, not to mention some attacking capability in players like end-turned-OLB Derrell Johnson and tackle Terry Williams. But opponents will continue to pick on the secondary until ECU proves it has improved in that regard.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Trent Tignor 6'5, 212 Sr. 65 42.8 9 16 14 46.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB TB%
Warren Harvey 5'11, 225 Jr. 75 62.8 26 34.7%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2013
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Warren Harvey 5'11, 225 Jr. 50-50 12-13 92.3% 3-7 42.9%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Derrick Harris KR 22 20.6 0
Lance Ray KR 6'2, 208 Sr. 13 22.3 1
Hunter Furr KR 10 18.9 0
Justin Hardy PR 6'0, 186 Jr. 20 8.8 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 63
Net Punting 56
Net Kickoffs 63
Touchback Pct 69
Field Goal Pct 45
Kick Returns Avg 91
Punt Returns Avg 66

2013 Schedule & Projection Factors

2012 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
31-Aug Old Dominion NR
7-Sep Florida Atlantic 116
14-Sep Virginia Tech 23
28-Sep at North Carolina 32
5-Oct at Middle Tennessee 98
12-Oct at Tulane 111
19-Oct Southern Miss 87
2-Nov at Florida International 99
9-Nov Tulsa 56
16-Nov UAB 105
23-Nov at N.C. State 61
30-Nov at Marshall 79
Five-Year F/+ Rk 64
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 88
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 0 / +6.9
TO Luck/Game -2.7
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 17 (8, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin** -0.6

9. Rooting for Ruffin

Here's what I wrote in last December's New Orleans Bowl recap:

100. Percentage of East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill's camera time in which he was encouraging somebody. McNeill might be the easiest coach in the country to like. He spent most of his game patting players on the helmet, making eye contact and pumping his fist to somebody, or speaking with clear admiration to an assistant. Play for him, and you play for one of the best father figures in the country.

I root for nice guys to succeed in the often cutthroat industry of college football, and McNeill appears as nice as they come. But with an upgrade in competition forthcoming (ECU moves to the American Athletic Conference soon), McNeill would be well-served to capitalize on his late-2012 momentum and win quite a few games in a watered-down C-USA. The good news is, the odds of that are pretty good.

10. If the defensive mess gets cleaned up just a little bit...

The overall slate is not very forgiving, both with three ACC contests (Virginia Tech, at North Carolina, at N.C. State) and a trip to Marshall, the Pirates' primary East division competition; but there are wins to be found in 2013 if ECU can stiffen up just a little bit defensively and fully utilize the experience and newfound play-making ability it unearthed near the end of last season. This team has more potential than most C-USA teams in 2013. Time to take advantage of that.

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