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The big 2014 ECU football preview: Pirates will be worth watching

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

East Carolina has itself a stellar quarterback and stars at receiver and on the defensive front. Can the Pirates overcome losses on the offensive line and in the secondary -- not to mention a step up to the AAC -- to replicate last season's success?

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Well THAT came together nicely...

You've got a decent offense, but your defense is lagging behind. You've been to two bowls in three years, but the quality of your team overall needs a boost. Hire a new defensive coordinator!

Tens of head coaches try this every year, but most of the time it doesn't have an incredible impact. Or, to put it a different way, for every positive outcome, there's a negative one and an outcome that changes nothing. For Ruffin McNeill, 19-19 after his first three seasons in charge in Greenville, it was the former. He hired former Skip Holtz assistant Rick Smith to jazz up an experienced defense, and Smith's take on the 3-4 defense was perfect for the personnel on hand. East Carolina improved from 91st in Def. F/+ to 51st.

Meanwhile, the defense's improvement coincided with an everything-comes-together season for quarterback Shane Carden. With targets new and old and a steady running back, Carden completed 71 percent of his passes, and ECU's offense improved from 77th in Off. F/+ to 34th.

It all came together for ECU in 2013, in other words. The Pirates went from a lucky 8-5 (with a 2-0 record in games decided by one possession) to an unlucky 10-3 (1-2 in one-possession games), barely missed out on the Conference USA title game in their last year in the conference, and departed for a new conference with a top-40 overall ranking. This is how a fan would draw it up, but it rarely comes together this nicely.

The one drawback to having an experienced team, however, is that it doesn't remain experienced forever. ECU heads to the AAC with quite a few stars -- Carden, receivers Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones, end Terrell Stanley, OLB/missile Montese Overton -- but the depth of experience on the offensive line and in the back eight of the defense has dissipated. ECU should be pretty good again and will have plenty of opportunities for upsets early in the season, but it might be difficult to put together a top-40 result again.

Still, McNeill has himself a hell of a staff and a hell of a quarterback; you could do worse than having that in your back pocket as you head off to a new league.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 40
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug Old Dominion N/A 52-38 W 25.4 - 36.6 L
5-Sep Florida Atlantic 73 31-13 W 30.4 - 16.4 W
14-Sep Virginia Tech 27 10-15 L 26.8 - 18.7 W
28-Sep at North Carolina 38 55-31 W 40.2 - 25.8 W
5-Oct at Middle Tennessee 85 24-17 W 30.3 - 26.1 W 5.9
12-Oct at Tulane 70 33-36 L 39.7 - 27.3 W 10.6
19-Oct Southern Miss 120 55-14 W 30.8 - 19.0 W 10.2
2-Nov at Florida International 125 34-13 W 29.9 - 35.6 L 7.4
9-Nov Tulsa 94 58-24 W 37.1 - 31.8 W 5.6
16-Nov UAB 115 63-14 W 34.6 - 22.3 W 7.2
23-Nov at N.C. State 92 42-28 W 37.3 - 29.6 W 6.2
29-Nov at Marshall 52 28-59 L 35.5 - 28.7 W 5.2
23-Dec vs. Ohio 104 37-20 W 37.0 - 24.2 W 9.0
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +7.4% 34 +2.2% 51 -0.8% 87
Points Per Game 40.2 8 24.8 50
Adj. Points Per Game 33.5 28 26.3 54

2. The defense did spring some leaks

ECU's defense improved dramatically in 2013, but the improvement faded a bit when the new-defense smell wore off. As was the case in 2012, opponents figured out they could pass relatively effectively and did so more frequently as the season progressed.

Adj. Points Per Game (games 2-7): ECU 33.0, Opponent 22.2 (plus-9.8)
Adj. Points Per Game (games 8-13): ECU 35.2, Opponent 28.7 (plus-6.5)

ECU was just a couple of breaks from heading to Marshall with an 11-0 record. The offense stalled in the second half against Virginia Tech in a five-point loss, and the Pirates outgained Tulane by 233 yards but fell in triple overtime thanks to a 99-yard pick six and a series of stalled drives.

Against Marshall, however, it wasn't close. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato completed 17 of 28 passes for 272 yards, and Marshall jumped out to a 24-0 lead 20 minutes in, then coasted. It was a disappointing result considering ECU had been the better team for most of the season (year-end F/+ rankings: ECU 40, Marshall 56), but the Pirates wrapped things up with an eventual thumping of Ohio in St. Petersburg and got to 10 wins for the first time since they went 11-1 and finished ninth in the country in their vaunted 1991 season.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.10 83 IsoPPP+ 93.2 98
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 49.0% 16 Succ. Rt. + 114.2 22
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 29.7 60 Def. FP+ 100.4 55
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.9 17 Redzone S&P+ 96.9 75
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 24.8 ACTUAL 16 -8.8
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 25 32 22 31
RUSHING 92 62 48 106
PASSING 11 29 9 6
Standard Downs 39 20 72
Passing Downs 36 27 110
Q1 Rk 40 1st Down Rk 35
Q2 Rk 39 2nd Down Rk 63
Q3 Rk 62 3rd Down Rk 22
Q4 Rk 21

3. Dink, dunk, dink, dunk

East Carolina basically turns every opponent's defense into a bend-don't-break unit. The Pirates ranked 22nd in Success Rate+ (efficiency) and 98th in IsoPPP+ (explosiveness). Against basically everybody but Virginia Tech, they were able to ride a short passing game to great success, spreading you out, testing your tackling ability on the perimeter, then jabbing up the middle with Vintavious Cooper.

When ECU absolutely needed big plays, the Pirates didn't really get them. But as long as they were able to move the ball at their own pace (and since they didn't face many serious deficits, their own pace lasted for most of 2013), they were just fine. And they were able to frequently wear out defenses and create bigger gains late.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Shane Carden 6'2, 218 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 387 549 4139 33 10 70.5% 29 5.0% 6.8
Cody Keith 6'3, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 7 11 57 0 0 63.6% 1 8.3% 3.9
Kurt Benkert 6'3, 206 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Blake Kemp 6'3, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)

4. Shane Carden is underrated

Okay, he takes a few too many sacks given the quick-passing nature of his offense. But that's basically the only negative thing I can think to say about Carden heading into his senior season.

The senior caught fire about midway through his sophomore season, completing 68 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns to six picks over the last eight games of 2012; then he basically sustained that pace for most of 2013. He struggled against Virginia Tech (like basically every other quarterback in 2013) and Marshall, but his passing line in the other 11 games was as follows: 73 percent completion rate, 32 touchdowns, four interceptions. Carden makes solid reads and easy throws, and when he's forced to scramble, he does a rather efficient job of it.

His backfield complement, Vintavious Cooper, is gone, and that could hurt. Cooper's numbers were nothing if not solid -- solid efficiency, solid explosiveness. But his biggest service may have come as a bailout option. He caught 44 of 51 Carden passes and averaged nearly 10 yards per catch with them. He was perhaps the most reliable pass-catching running back in the country, and while this year's batch of running backs may be just fine (Breon Allen caught 10 of 10 passes for 138 yards, Chris Hairston showed high-end explosiveness potential, and redshirt freshman Marquez Grayson was very nearly a four-star recruit), it's not a given.

Carden's receiving corps will be a mix of new and old. His top two targets return, and they're perfect pieces for this type of offense; Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones caught 78 percent of their passes and averaged an efficient 8.3 yards per target. At the same time, ECU's 2014 recruiting class was loaded with receivers, and any of six freshmen could see roles behind the big two.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Vintavious Cooper RB 230 1193 13 5.2 4.9 39.6%
Breon Allen RB 5'8, 190 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 62 311 3 5.0 3.3 46.8%
Shane Carden QB 6'2, 218 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 61 293 10 4.8 4.3 37.7%
Chris Hairston RB 6'0, 194 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 49 186 3 3.8 6.6 22.4%
Cory Hunter RB 5'10, 201 Jr. NR 7 27 0 3.9 1.2 42.9%
Marquez Grayson RB 6'1, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Anthony Scott RB 5'9, 180 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)




Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Justin Hardy IR(Y) 6'0, 186 Sr. NR 151 114 1284 75.5% 28.2% 65.7% 8.5 6 8.1 166.6
Isaiah Jones IR(H) 6'1, 170 So. 2 stars (5.4) 76 62 604 81.6% 14.2% 60.9% 7.9 -67 8.1 78.4
Vintavious Cooper RB 51 44 412 86.3% 9.5% 40.8% 8.1 -53 9.1 53.5
Reese Wiggins OR(X) 43 26 372 60.5% 8.0% 79.5% 8.7 47 8.8 48.3
Cam Worthy OR(X) 6'2, 217 Sr. NR 34 19 295 55.9% 6.3% 63.0% 8.7 47 8.3 38.3
Lance Ray OR(Z) 34 28 237 82.4% 6.3% 69.0% 7.0 -65 5.9 30.8
Davon Grayson OR(X) 6'2, 175 So. 2 stars (5.4) 31 17 168 54.8% 5.8% 74.2% 5.4 -56 5.1 21.8
Danny Webster WR 30 18 144 60.0% 5.6% 63.3% 4.8 -82 4.6 18.7
Bryce Williams IR(Y) 6'6, 240 Jr. NR 26 20 220 76.9% 4.9% 65.0% 8.5 -2 8.6 28.6
DaQuan Barnes OR(Z) 6'1, 186 So. NR 17 9 103 52.9% 3.2% 75.0% 6.1 -18 6.4 13.4
Breon Allen RB 5'8, 190 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 10 10 138 100.0% 1.9% 57.1% 13.8 39 11.6 17.9
Cedric Thompson IR(H) 5'9, 183 Jr. NR 5 4 38 80.0% 0.9% 100.0% 7.6 -6 3.1 4.9
Jimmy Williams WR 5'11, 167 So. NR 5 5 66 100.0% 0.9% 0.0% 13.2 16 5.9 8.6
Brandon Bishop WR 5'11, 183 So. NR
Darren Dowdell TE 6'4, 228 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Curtis Burston OR 6'1, 212 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Malik Gray OR 6'1, 194 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Trevon Brown OR 6'2, 192 Fr. 2 stars (5.2)
Quay Johnson IR 5'10, 170 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Steve Baggett TE 6'5, 225 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Dre Massey IR 6'0, 175 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)

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 101.9 2.77 4.15 38.2% 62.5% 21.5% 130.8 5.1% 5.1%
Rank 56 88 6 78 98 99 37 78 42
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Will Simmons RG 38 1st All-CUSA
Jordan Davis LG 37 2nd All-CUSA
Adhem Elsawi RT 27
Ike Harris LT 6'7, 304 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 13
C.J. Struyk C 6'2, 296 Jr. NR 12
Taylor Hudson C 6'5, 300 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 8
Tre Robertson RT 6'5, 325 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 6
Drew Gentry RG 1
Marquis Wallace RG 6'5, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Stewart Hinson LT 6'7, 296 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Will Foxx LG 6'2, 313 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Larry Williams LG 6'4, 290 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0
Brandon Smith RT 6'8, 344 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Christian Matau C 6'3, 315 RSFr. 2 stars (5.2)
Dontae Levingston OL 6'4, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Quincy McKinney OL 6'4, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)

5. Red flag up front?

Of course, the biggest loss for Carden might not be Cooper. At the end of 2013, ECU had two three-year starters and a two-year starter on the offensive line; all three are gone. Four players with starting experience do return (39 career starts), but last year's line was good on standard downs and great on passing downs, and if that changes, ECU's efficiency-based offense might need a few more big plays than it's capable of generating.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.05 23 IsoPPP+ 106.1 36
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 37.9% 20 Succ. Rt. + 95.6 73
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 34.2 1 Off. FP+ 103.5 23
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 44 Redzone S&P+ 94.6 78
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 24.7 ACTUAL 24.0 -0.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 36 69 73 74
RUSHING 13 59 48 49
PASSING 95 72 91 90
Standard Downs 55 62 37
Passing Downs 83 93 34
Q1 Rk 53 1st Down Rk 36
Q2 Rk 105 2nd Down Rk 54
Q3 Rk 58 3rd Down Rk 121
Q4 Rk 65

6. Opponents knew to pass

Despite the new coordinator, ECU's defense was relatively similar in style in 2013 as it had been in 2012. The Pirates pulled off the same bend-don't-break approach they forced opposing defenses to take, sacrificing some efficiency in the name of big-play prevention.

Most of the efficiency issues came against the pass. Seven opponents completed at least 60 percent of their passes; not every offense was able to take advantage of this (Southern Miss, Tulsa, and UAB combined to complete 43 percent of their passes), but the decent and good ones were.

That will probably be the case again this year. ECU must replace four of its top six defensive backs and perhaps its best pass rusher (outside linebacker Derrell Johnson), so I doubt the Pirates will suddenly adopt an aggressive man defense. There's enough star power up front that the run defense could get better while the pass defense gets worse. And opponents will pass once again.

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 96.7 2.68 3.32 33.3% 69.4% 19.0% 107.4 3.6% 10.3%
Rank 74 31 67 15 81 65 48 88 10
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Terrell Stanley DE 6'2, 266 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 31.0 4.0% 10.0 7.0 0 1 0 0
Chrishon Rose DE 6'4, 299 Sr. 2 stars (5.1) 13 23.0 3.0% 6.0 2.5 0 1 0 0
Lee Pegues DE 13 19.5 2.5% 7.0 4.5 0 1 1 0
Johnathon White DE 6'4, 283 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 13 17.0 2.2% 3.0 3.0 0 1 1 0
Frederick Presley NT 6'3, 323 So. NR 11 13.0 1.7% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Terry Williams NT 6'1, 322 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 5 9.0 1.2% 1.0 0.5 0 1 0 0
Demetri McGill NT 6'1, 300 So. 3 stars (5.5) 9 4.5 0.6% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
K'Hadree Hooker DE 6'1, 294 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Randall Anderson DE 6'4, 246 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)

7. A damn strong 3-4 line

The best 3-4 lines have the requisite size, which is sometimes hard to put together at a mid-major; there are only so many huge nose tackles with any semblance of talent. But with a little bit of experimentation and a key transfer, ECU might have all the size it needs. It appears the Pirates will be able to start a 299-pound end and rotate between three 300-pound noses. And they welcome N.C. State transfer K'Hadree Hooker into the mix as well.

Between solid size up front and pursuit from the linebackers, ECU offered few opportunities for opposing runners. The size improves in 2014 and could offset some turnover at LB.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Zeek Bigger ILB 6'2, 228 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 57.5 7.5% 4.5 1.5 1 5 0 0
Derrell Johnson OLB 13 53.5 7.0% 13.0 7.0 1 3 0 0
Kyle Tudor ILB 12 52.0 6.8% 3.0 0.5 1 3 0 0
Brandon Williams ILB 6'1, 240 Sr. NR 13 48.5 6.3% 5.5 0.5 1 2 1 1
Montese Overton OLB 6'3, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 42.0 5.5% 10.5 6.0 0 2 2 0
Gabe Woullard OLB 13 35.0 4.5% 4.5 2.0 0 4 2 0
Jeremy Grove ILB 9 26.5 3.4% 2.0 0.0 1 2 0 0
Ty Holmes ILB 11 12.5 1.6% 0.0 0.0 0 2 0 1
Maurice Falls OLB 6'2, 247 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 12 10.5 1.4% 0.0 0.0 1 0 0 0
Devaris Brunson ILB 6'1, 210 So. 3 stars (5.5) 11 7.5 1.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dayon Pratt OLB 6'4, 224 So. 2 stars (5.4) 9 5.0 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Jake Geary OLB 6'3, 243 Sr. 3 stars (5.5)
Reece Speight OLB 6'3, 236 So. 2 stars (5.3)
Cameron White ILB 5'11, 213 So. NR
Yiannis Bowden OLB 6'5, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Joe Carter ILB 6'2, 220 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Markel Winters OLB 6'3, 226 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Damon Magazu FS 13 60.5 7.9% 0 0 5 2 0 0
Chip Thompson SS 13 46.5 6.0% 0.5 0 2 8 0 0
Adonis Armstrong CB 13 41.0 5.3% 1.5 0 2 11 0 0
Detric Allen CB 6'0, 200 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 32.5 4.2% 1.5 0 0 3 0 0
Josh Hawkins CB 5'10, 183 Jr. NR 13 32.0 4.2% 1 0 1 4 0 0
Michael Dobson SS 13 31.0 4.0% 0 0 1 4 0 0
DaShaun Amos CB 6'1, 182 So. NR 13 12.0 1.6% 0.5 0 1 2 0 0
DaShawn Benton CB 6'0, 175 So. 2 stars (5.4) 11 9.0 1.2% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Lamar Ivey FS 6'1, 196 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 6.0 0.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Domonique Lennon SS 6'2, 212 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 11 5.0 0.6% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Terrell Richardson SS 6'0, 214 So. NR 8 4.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Rocco Scarfone CB 5'11, 182 Jr. 2 stars (5.4)
Nate Mays FS 5'10, 190 So. NR
Travon Simmons FS 5'10, 170 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Travis Phillips CB 5'11, 175 Fr. 2 stars (5.2)
Cody Purdie SS 5'11, 183 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Drew Turnage DB 6'0, 185 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Corey Seargent DB 6'0, 180 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)

8. Lots of questions in the back

Lots of defenses return five starters in a given year. It's not optimal, but you can survive it. The problem for ECU in 2014 might be that not only are the losses specialized in a couple of areas (linebacker, safety), but the second string was also hit pretty hard. In all, five of ECU's top eight linebackers are gone, as are the top three safeties.

ECU did sign quite a few interesting freshmen at these spots, that will matter more for 2015 and beyond. In 2014, ECU's success could come down to players like Domonique Lennon and Maurice Falls filling much larger roles than they've been asked to fill before.

This is a DB-friendly defense, in that ECU isn't asking for aggressive man coverage on islands, but you still need competence.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Trent Tignor 47 42.8 7 6 12 38.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Warren Harvey 5'11, 225 Sr. 86 59.3 30 4 34.9%
Davis Plowman 5'10, 185 Jr. 7 62.6 0 0 0.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Warren Harvey 5'11, 225 Sr. 61-63 12-16 75.0% 3-9 33.3%
Davis Plowman 5'10, 185 Jr. 3-3 1-1 100.0% 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Lance Ray KR 22 25.1 0
Isaiah Jones KR 6'1, 170 So. 4 24.5 0
Justin Hardy PR 6'0, 186 Sr. 20 11.3 0
Breon Allen PR 5'8, 190 Sr. 8 7.4 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 87
Field Goal Efficiency 106
Punt Return Efficiency 53
Kick Return Efficiency 45
Punt Efficiency 92
Kickoff Efficiency 66
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 42

9. Hit-and-miss

It was a mixed bag for ECU in terms of special teams last year. The returns were strong (and should be again), but kicker Warren Harvey was a bit unreliable, and punter Trent Tignor outkicked his coverage a decent number of times. Special teams is a small-sample thing that can change pretty dramatically from year to year, but aside from Tignor, everybody's back, for better or worse.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug NC Central NR
6-Sep at South Carolina 4
13-Sep at Virginia Tech 22
20-Sep North Carolina 36
4-Oct SMU 74
11-Oct at South Florida 77
23-Oct Connecticut 86
1-Nov at Temple 87
15-Nov at Cincinnati 54
22-Nov Tulane 90
28-Nov at Tulsa 64
4-Dec Central Florida 24
Five-Year F/+ Rk -2.0% (63)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 85
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 8 / -0.2
TO Luck/Game +3.1
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (6, 5)

10. Plenty of opportunities to make some noise

There are certainly some questions here. A good portion of ECU's success was based on the ability of its safeties to prevent big plays and its offensive line to protect Shane Carden and create opportunities on passing downs. And both the line and secondary are facing rebuilds.

But it's pretty easy to like what you see elsewhere on this roster. Carden and his top two targets return, the front seven should still be big and fun, and there are candidates at running back and linebacker. All the secondary and offensive line have to do is avoid total collapse, and ECU could approximate last year's top-40 ranking.

If they end up in the No. 40-to-50 neighborhood, that introduces an array of possibilities. It puts ECU close enough to potential home wins over North Carolina and UCF. It makes the Pirates potentially prone to road losses to USF and Tulsa.

ECU should expect to reach another bowl, which is always a satisfactory in the first year in a new conference, but the Pirates will have every opportunity to make a bit more noise than that. This could be a pretty fun team to watch in 2014.

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