CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 03: Head coach Ruffin McNeill of the East Carolina Pirates cheers on his team against the South Carolina Gamecocks during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
After two mediocre seasons at East Carolina, Ruffin McNeill has put together an interesting, if mostly unproven, team. Can the Pirates improve the run defense and find at least one big-play threat on offense? Can they improve enough to keep the likable McNeill employed for a fourth season in Greenville? Related: ECU's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore. Follow @SBNationCFB
In 1991, East Carolina went 11-1 under Bill Lewis, winning the Peach Bowl and finishing ninth in the country. Lewis left for Georgia Tech (bad move), and after a short glitch (7-15 in 1992-93), the Pirates once again established a quality reputation. They finished .500 or better in seven of eight seasons, attended five bowls in eight years, and were, generally speaking, a tough out.
Steve Logan pulled a series of nice upsets in the 1990s.
- Oct. 15, 1994: No. 19 Virginia Tech 27, ECU 20
- Nov. 5, 1994: No. 3 Auburn 38, ECU 21
- Sept. 9, 1995: ECU 27, No. 22 Syracuse 24
- Oct. 19, 1996: ECU 31, No. 12 Miami 6
- Sept. 25, 1999: ECU 27, No. 9 Miami 23
Logan lost his way (10-12 in 2001-02) and was replaced by John Thompson in 2003 … and the ECU program completely crumbled, going 3-20 in two years. Skip Holtz, however, re-established ECU's reputation. The Pirates attended four consecutive bowls and won 33 games from 2006-09, reaching as high as 14th in the 2008 polls after knocking off No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 8 West Virginia in back-to-back weeks. When Holtz left for South Florida in 2010, ECU replaced him with Ruffin McNeill, Mike Leach's defensive coordinator at Texas Tech. The Pirates have gone just 11-14 in McNeill's two seasons and are now standing at a bit of a crossroads: Is this a reset before another surge, like the beginning of the Logan era? Or is this the beginning of another mini-collapse?
We will probably find out the answer in 2012, and not only because a poor season could be McNeill's last in Greenville. First of all, ECU gets multiple opportunities at an old-school ECU upset -- they play at South Carolina on Sept. 8 and at North Carolina on Sept. 22. Beyond that, however, this very much becomes McNeill's team this fall. Youngsters are littered throughout the receiving corps (and in an all-pass, all-the-time offense, no less), the quarterback will be a McNeill recruit now that Dominique Davis has departed, and the defense will be very much reliant on a few sophomores and juniors for continued improvement after a decent 2011.
McNeill has pieces in place. Now it's time to find out if they're actually any good.
You can just tell the projections are going to be confused by ECU. Four-year F/+ rank doesn't mean as much when both your offense and defense pulled a 180 last season. In theory, things regress back to the mean after a surge, positive or negative. So one would think the offense might regress a bit while the defense bounces a bit back toward its 2009 form. And that might very well be what happens. The defense could see benefits from health and a change to a scheme that seems to suit the personnel reasonably well, while the offense could struggle to account for the loss at running back; plus, Dwayne Harris' replacement might not be as good. It's not hard to see things playing out this way.
It's also not hard to see the exact opposite playing out. ECU's 2010 profile -- great passing offense, sieve of a rush D -- was what Texas Tech dealt with for many seasons, when they always looked great on offense and always struggled with defense, and it's hard to find a reason to question what the combination of Dominique Davis and Lincoln Riley might have in store for this fall.
In other words, I'm throwing my hands up on this one. ECU's probably going to be a perfectly decent team this year, but how much of that is based on which side of the ball ... I have no idea. Virginia Tech and North Carolina come to Greenville this fall, following a meeting with South Carolina in Charlotte. Seven of 12 games are within the state of North Carolina, and if East Carolina proved anything in 2010, it's that they are capable of winning or losing just about any game on the slate. Go ahead and re-up on that Toprol prescription, ECU fans. It could be another interesting fall.
It was certainly an interesting fall. ECU led a ranked South Carolina team by 10 points at halftime of the first game, then played mediocre to subpar ball for much of the next two months. The defense disappeared in the second half versus South Carolina, then the offense vanished in a 17-10 loss to Virginia Tech, then it was the defense's turn again in a 35-20 loss to North Carolina. The two units more or less took turns thriving and fading the rest of the way, and November road losses to UTEP and Marshall officially ended what was a five-year bowl streak. For the season, the offense did indeed regress from 2010 form while the defense improved, but the result was two below-average units and little overall identity. It goes without saying that this must change in 2012.
Mike Leach's fingerprint is heavy in Greenville. Not only was McNeill Leach's final defensive coordinator in Lubbock, but offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and offensive line coach Brandon Jones are also both 2006 Tech grads, and outside receivers coach Dave Nichol was on Leach's staff from 2003-05. (Defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell and outside linebackers coach Duane Price were also assistants under McNeill in Lubbock.) ECU's offensive concepts are going to be quite familiar to anybody used to watching those Leach offenses, but the execution differs. Or maybe it's just the quality of the receivers.
The 2011 ECU was incredibly efficient -- Dominique Davis completed 68 percent of his passes, and ECU ranked 25th in Passing Success Rate+ -- but there were no big play threats whatsoever. The Pirates ranked 95th in PPP+, which meant that this high-efficiency attack had to function well for quite a few consecutive plays to generate points. We've said before that the easiest path to victory is scoring easy points, usually via big offensive plays. ECU scored no easy points. That's how they ranked 20th in Passing Yards per game, but only 55th in Passing S&P+.
The odds of that changing in 2012 are not that high. Junior Rio Johnson, who completed 69 percent of his passes last year but still averaged just 3.3 yards per pass attempt (including sacks), pulled something similar in this year's spring game: 17-for-23 passing (74 percent, very nice) for 153 yards (6.7 per pass, very mediocre). Quick, effective passes are nice, but of ECU's six leading returning receivers, only one averaged better than 10.5 yards per catch: junior Reese Wiggins (14.9). The former three-star recruit averaged a lovely 11.8 adjusted yards per target and should move into the role vacated by all-conference receiver Lance Lewis. If he cannot provide some easy points, however, it is unclear who will.
Of course, there are plenty of interesting newcomers and youngsters who could become candidates at wide receiver, just as there are throughout the offense.
- Redshirt freshman Antonio Cannon, junior college transfer (and former Arkansas Razorback) Lance Ray, and late bloomers like junior Justin Jones and senior Dayon Arrington are vying for targets alongside Wiggins, senior Andrew Bodenheimer and sophomore inside receivers Justin Hardy and Danny Webster.
- Johnson is the presumptive leader in the quarterback race, but he has not pulled away yet. Sophomore Shane Carden looked impressive before missing part of spring practice with injury, and redshirt freshman Cody Keith was quite highly-touted.
- At running back, Reggie Bullock was the most consistent ECU running back in 2011, but he missed half the season with injury. Like Johnson, he is the assumed starter, but he will be pushed by juniors Torrance Hunt, Michael Dobson and big Zico Pasut, North Carolina transfer Hunter Furr, and redshirt freshman Chris Hairston. Each brings a different set of size and skills to the table. While minimized in the ECU offense, the running game was neither efficient nor explosive in 2011. If you can execute, there are large swaths of yards to be gained on the ground when everybody thinks you are going to pass.
- On a line that returns six players with starting experience (57 career starts), sophomores Drew Gentry and Taylor Hudson, senior (and converted defensive tackle) Robert Jones and redshirt freshman Tre Robertson are all trying to push into the rotation.
Depth and candidates are great things to have. But at some point, players need to begin distinguishing themselves. Who does, and how many do, will determine whether ECU's offense can rebound from a mediocre 2011.
While the ECU offense regressed back toward the previous mean in 2011, the ECU progressed to the same. After ranking 23rd in Def. F/+ in 2008 and 33rd in 2009, the Pirates' defense had been horrific in 2010, falling to 118th. The rebound did not have the velocity of the fall, but they did improve to 88th last fall.
Like SMU, ECU executes out of a 3-4 alignment, one that should improve a bit more this fall. Six of the top seven linemen return, as do six of the top eight linebackers. The key to significant improvement will be in the middle; despite solid size, ECU ranked 106th in Adj. Line Yards and 97th in Rushing S&P+. There isn't a lot of interesting new blood on the line, but experience won't hurt. Nose guards Michael Brooks (a 297-pound senior who led ECU's linemen in tackles and logged 5.5 tackles for loss) and Terry Williams (a 324-pound sophomore who registered three tackles for loss and forced two fumbles) return, and coordinator Brian Mitchell evidently felt good enough about the end position to move last year's leading end, Derrell Johnson, to outside linebacker. Matt Milner and a pair of interesting juniors -- former three-star recruit Lee Pegues and former four-star recruit Justin Dixon -- will lead a pass rush that ranked 40th in Adj. Sack Rate and generated decent pressure without blitzing.
At linebacker, for better or worse, there is a wealth of options. Inside man Jeremy Grove made 12.3 percent of ECU's tackles last year as a freshman; he is a "tackling machine" sort who can free up others to take risks. Those "others" will probably include Johnson, sophomore outside linebackers Jake Geary and Maurice Falls, and redshirt freshmen like Zeek Bigger (that's right, they have a Zico on offense and a Zeek on defense) and Montese Overton.
Improvement from the front seven would be a very good thing, as the secondary was gutted. ECU must replace three of its top four cornerbacks (Emanuel Davis and Derek Blacknall combined for 16 passes defended) and strong safety Bradley Jacobs. Free safety Damon Magazu and senior corners Leonard Paulk and Jacobi Jenkins return, but this unit will probably sink or swim because of newcomers. The Pirates added two high three-star freshmen (Lucas Thompson and Jabril Solomon) and three three-star junior college transfers (Adonis Armstrong, Colby Brown and Godfrey Thompson, who emerged as the possible starting strong safety this spring). All five do not have to thrive for ECU's secondary to "swim," but a couple of them do. Pass defense was a strength for ECU in 2011 -- they not only rushed the quarterback well but ranked in the Top 60 in both efficiency (Passing Success Rate+) and explosiveness (Passing PPP+). The run defense was the problem last year, and while it should improve, such improvement won't necessarily matter if the secondary fades.
After a half-decade of steady success, one has to figure ECU won't define the success-or-not line any lower than a winning record. And with home games versus Appalachian State, UTEP, Memphis, Navy and Marshall, reaching six wins shouldn't be too much to ask. Let's set the bar at seven wins.
Ruffin McNeill is an incredibly likable coach. He says things like "I thought there was a smooth operation there," his players tend to love him, he improved Texas Tech's defense enough to briefly make them a national title contender in 2008, and he has lost about 140 pounds since January of last year. But results are results, and he hasn't produced them yet.
The recruiting has been solid, and an infusion of three-star youth -- quarterback Cody Keith, receiver Antonio Cannon, linebacker Zeek Bigger, defensive backs Thompson and Solomon, et cetera -- should be able to make at least a marginally positive impact this fall. I do expect better times at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this fall, and I do expect McNeill and company to produce a solid season. Don't expect the Pirates to compete for a Conference USA crown in 2012 -- there are still too many questions about big-play ability and run defense -- but do expect them to do well enough to keep the likable McNeill employed.