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East Carolina Football: 2014 Spring Practice Preview

Head Coach Ruffin McNeill and his Pirates will try to carry over their Conference USA success to the new American Athletic Conference (formerly known as the Big East) in 2014.

We continue our "Behind Enemy Lines" series by taking a look at the Hokies' third opponent for 2014: the East Carolina Pirates.

From the "What Had Happened Was" File:

Overview: East Carolina finished the 2013 season at 10-3 with a 6-2 record in Conference USA. Rice was your CUSA champion after smacking Marshall 41-24 in their conference championship game. ECU finished 2nd in the CUSA-East, and effectively had a CUSA-E title game with Marshall the week before the CUSA championship. The Pirates lost that matchup 59-28.

vs. the Hokies: Cody Journell again drew the ire of Hokie fans everywhere when he missed an extra point attempt and three second half field goal attempts (one erased by penalty); but, Frank’s boys got a huge boost from Bud’s guys and were able to escape from Dowdy-Ficklen with a 15-10 win.

Editor's Note: I'll Leave This Here.....

ECU beats Virginia Tech 2008 (via Bigus252)

ECU's Losses VT (15-10), Tulane (36-33 OT), Marshall (59-28)

Signature Win: Merely a week after their disappointing loss to VT, the Pirates roared back with a convincing 55-31 thrashing of UNC.

Postseason: ECU beat Ohio University 37-20 in the Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl

From the "Rebuilding or Reloading?" File:

The Pirates will have only 8 offensive linemen available for practice this spring, as ???LT Ike Harris and ??? C.J. Stryuk and ???Christian Matau (Centers) are slated to sit out due to injury. As Coach McNeill told Brian Haines of the Raleigh News Observer in this nifty article

"It will be a little different," he said. "We have done this this before when we were short where maybe we’ll have someone from the defensive line step in when we divide because there will be some parts of the spring where we expose them to … some various offenses or defenses that we’ll face next year. … We just have to be smart during that time."

As VT fans can certainly attest, playing musical chairs with offensive and defensive line prospects doesn’t usually result in those players having a productive collegiate career. This is potentially a critical blow to a defensive unit that’s replacing 7 starters (more on that later, don’t you ever worry), maybe not this year, but down the line in terms of developing quality depth. On one hand, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and you can’t cancel Spring Ball because you don’t have enough offensive linemen. On the other, playing around for the sake of the team at offensive line for a spring and losing critical defensive installations and game-speed reps does not help one develop into a productive defensive lineman.

From the "Can He Take It To the Next Level?" File

Pirate Sr. QB Shane Carden (6-2, 218) is the reigning Conference USA MVP and will look to springboard off a prolific 2013 season and carry that over into the AAC. From the 2014 ECU Spring Media Guide, which you can peruse here at your leisure,

"Carden, who established a combined nine single-game and single-season school standards a year ago, returns as one of the most prolific passers at the FBS level. As a junior, he ranked second among all national signal-callers in completion percentage (70.5), fifth in completions per game (29.8) and points responsible for per game (20.5), sixth in points responsible for (266), seventh in passing yards (4,139), eighth in passing yards per game (318.4), ninth in touchdown passes (33), 14th in total offense per game (326.3) and 24th in pass efficiency rating (150.01). Statistically, he stands as the top QB in the American Conference to open 2014 after completing 387-of-549 throws for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns last season."

That’s fantastic. The next logical question is, "Can he do it against the big boys?". If last season is any indicator, it’s not looking favorable for Carden. Versus Bud Foster’s LPD, Carden stunk it up, managing a pitiful 19-31 for 158 yards, 1TD, and 3 INT—2 to Freshman breakout CB Brandon Facyson. Carden zipped the Pirates down the field on their opening drive 75 yards in 5 plays, spanning only 1:39 and had all of Hokienation suffering from flashbacks to 2008, when the Pirates blocked a late punt and embarrassed the Hokies in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. After the opening drive? Crickets. ECU could only muster 129 yards on 49 plays the rest of the entire game.

The Pirates’ offense averaged a quite impressive 40 points per game in 2013, ringing up 63 against UAB, 58 on Tulsa, 52 on ODU, 42 versus NC State, and shockingly hanging 55 on North Carolina. They scored fewer than 30 points twice, both in losses: versus VT and at Marshall—the game which cost them a birth in the Conference USA title game. In both of those games, Carden through 3 picks. He only threw 4 more the entire rest of the season.

ECU loves to throw the ball around the yard and light up the scoreboard. There’s no reason to think they’re going to do anything less in 2014. However, Carden either struggles versus stout defensive lines (see: VT & Marshall, 2013), or picks extremely inopportune times to have a bad game.

Two Biggest Question Marks for 2014

Inexperienced Defense

The Pirates return only 4 defensive starters and are looking to replace 6 of their top 10 tacklers from 2013. Of those 7 vacancies, 3 are at linebacker and 3 are at defensive back. Granted, they weren’t completely wiped out at linebacker, as the Pirates run at 3-4 scheme; however, replacing nearly two entire units on one whole side of the ball will be an extremely tall order.

Sr. Detrick Allen (6-0, 200) and Jr. Josh Hawkins (5-10, 183) currently man the top of the depth chart at cornerback, but will face competition from sophomores DaShawn Benton (6-0, 175) and DaShaun Amos (6-1, 182). At safety, Sr. Lamar Ivey (6-1, 196), Jr. Dominique Lennon (6-2, 212), Fr. Blake Norwood (6-0, 189), and redshirt freshmen Travon Simmons (5-10, 170) and Xavier Smith (6-2, 190) will figure in the mix.

At linebacker, 2014 Jr. Ezekiel "Zeek" Bigger (6-2, 228)  earned his first collegiate start at inside linebacker last season against Virginia Tech and notched 9 tackles, as the Pirates limited the Hokies’ ground game to a pathetic 53 yards on 34 attempts. He is expected to take the next step this season, both on the field and in terms of leadership. The Pirates also return seniors Maurice Falls (6-2, 247) and Jake Geary (6-3, 243),  juniors Jeton Beavers (6-5, 263) and Montese Overton (6-3, 220), So. Dayon Pratt (6-4, 224) , and redshirt freshmen Kirk Donaldson (6-3, 250),  Pat Green (6-2, 200), and Trae Hudson (6-0, 234) outside, but only Sr. Brandon Williams (6-1, 240) and So. Drayvon Fairley (6-3, 217), inside. It’s likely the lopsided linebacking corps will even itself out a bit more during spring.

Way Too Early Prediction:

The Pirates always manage to have a stout defensive front. But, there are too many question marks behind them to pass up that matchup if you’re an opposing offensive coordinator. If the Hokies’ trigger man proves himself capable and his receivers step up their game (and their hands) this offseason, the potential for great success against the Pirates’ pass defense is certainly there. However, the incoming fresh blood for ECU could click and find their chemistry right away, which would cement them as a definite "upset alert" for VT…if it can even be called that anymore after our last two clunker offensive seasons.

Welcome to the AAC

For the Pirates to take the next step in becoming a respectable program that attracts more than "average" prospects from the Carolinas that are—bluntly—castoffs of regional ACC and SEC programs South Carolina, Clemson, UNC, and NC State, they have to be successful in high-profile, televised games and not just settle for running up the score on the FIU’s and UAB’s of the world. Fortunately, it is the AAC that the Pirates are moving up to and not the SEC; however, even the teams of the AAC pose a much tougher challenge on both sides of the ball week in and week out than teams in CUSA. The Pirates have never had to "grind" for an entire season before like they will in 2014. (In fairness, the other schools jumping from CUSA to AAC with them haven’t either.) They’re certainly talented enough offensively, but are they mentally tough enough to sustain consistency against faster and stronger opposition than they’re used to seeing? And defensively, can all of those inexperienced guys not only take advantage of their individual opportunity, but and come together as one for an entire season against consistently tougher competition than they’ve ever had to do?

Way Too Early Prediction:

ECU can certainly make a very strong case for why they will win the AAC; however, my preseason pick is Cincinnati. The Bearcats not only return talented running back Ralph David Abernathy, IV, they received a huge boost when Sr. QB Munchie Legaux was granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA. However, the man likely to make the biggest impact for the Bearcats in 2014 is Notre Dame transfer and former Rivals #1 quarterback Gunner Kiel, who has wrapped up his year of transfer purgatory and will be fully eligible to compete this season. Both Cincy and ECU are similar: potential for a potent offense while the defense replaces many key players. However, the bulk of the Pirates’ load falls squarely on the shoulders of Carden, while Kiel (or whoever is named the Bearcats’ QB) will definitely be able to lean on the capable legs of Abernathy.

Virginia Tech’s series with East Carolina runs through 2020. Thanks, Jim Weaver.