Photo courtesy of East Carolina Athletics
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Pirates came up just short in 2011, as East Carolina missed bowl eligibility by one game with a 5-7 overall record.
Ruffin McNeil's second year at the helm of his alma mater began with non- conference losses to South Carolina (56-37) and Virginia Tech (17-10). ECU bounced back with a win over UAB (28-23), but then suffered consecutive setbacks against North Carolina (35-20) and Houston (56-3). The Pirates rallied back to the .500 mark with three straight victories over Memphis (35-27), Navy (38-35), and Tulane (34-13). However, ECU's streak ended with a defeat by Southern Miss (48-28) which was followed by a road loss to Texas-El Paso (22-17).
The Pirates gave themselves a chance by outlasting UCF (38-31) in a thriller. ECU and Marshall came into their regular season-ending finale with identical 5-6 records. Marshall's 34-27 overtime win sent the Thundering Herd to a bowl game and ended the Pirates' season, marking the first time ECU missed a bowl game since 2005.
OFFENSE: ECU had the 20th-best passing offense in the NCAA last season with an average of 286.1 yards per game. The highly productive passing attack may take a hit with the departure of the program's starting signal caller. The decision on who will replace Dominique Davis under center is not completely settled yet. Rio Johnson (6-2, 188) and Shane Carden (6-2, 216) are the two leading candidates to do so, but Cody Keith and Brad Warnick are challenging for the spot as well. Johnson was the backup last year, which may give him the edge in the positional battle.
Whichever player earns the starting spot will be throwing to sophomore Justin Hardy, who had a breakout season as a redshirt freshman and led the Pirates in catches (64) and receiving yards (658). Andrew Bodenheimer, Danny Webster and Reese Wiggins are all contributors from the Pirates' deep group of wideouts.
The rushing attack lacked effectiveness and really held the ECU offense back in 2011 with a weak average of 109.1 yards per game. Reggie Bullock and Michael Dobson will be the leading candidates to correct the Pirates' issues.
The offensive line returns four starters and sophomore Taylor Hudson (6-5, 294) has nice size for a center and should be a nice addition to starting five. If last season's injuries that prevented ECU from starting the same offensive line two games in a row can be avoided, the rushing game is going to be much more relevant in 2012.
DEFENSE: ECU's defense made huge strides in its first year using the 3-4 scheme, allowing over 100 yards less per game than in 2010. Still, there is still plenty of room for improvement as the team ranked eighth in the C-USA with 174.2 rushing yards per game allowed.
The defense starts with senior tackle Michael Brooks (6-3, 313) up front leading the charge. A rotation of DEs will keep the pass rushers on the outside fresh as they try to exceed last year's total of 1.92 sacks per game.
Linebacker Jeremy Grove (6-1, 233) will be one of the leaders this season after a tremendous redshirt freshman campaign with a third place finish in the C-USA in tackles (122).
"He's an old school linebacker that could've played in any era" said NcNeil when discussing Grove. "He has a workman mentality and personality. He's a smart football player that loves to play the game and has a great passion for it."
After switching positions from defensive end, Derrell Johnson (6-2, 264) is bigger than most outside linebackers. Johnson and sophomore Maurice Falls will play alongside Grove on the second level.
The secondary only returns safety Damon Magazu from last season's starting four. The senior tandem of Jacobi Jenkins and Leonard Paulk will be the starting corners and sophomore Lamar Ivey (6-1, 187) edged Godfrey Thompson for the starting strong safety spot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: ECU was ranked last in the NCAA with an average of just 29.6 yards per punt and ranked 108th in the country with 19.2 yards per kick return. Kirk Doll is the new special teams coordinator that will hope to see drastic improvement in those areas. Sophomore Warren Harvey earned the starting place-kicker job in the spring by proving he can be confident and accurate. Danny Webster and Derrick Harris will also participate on special teams as kick and punt returners.
OUTLOOK: The departure of Davis leaves ECU without an identity coming into the season. The continued struggle for the reins of the quarterback position will leave the full-time starter with the pressure of three backups breathing down his neck once he hits the field. The Pirates' schedule is not going to be a cakewalk either.
"I like this football team," said coach McNeil. "They don't make excuses or complain and that's what we've been aiming for. Everybody has high expectations of themselves and for each of their teammates."
McNeil's team will open with a dangerous FCS opponent in Appalachian State before three straight road games versus South Carolina, Southern Miss, and North Carolina.
ECU has an easier path down the stretch with five of its final eight games at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, including a non-conference rematch with the Navy Midshipmen on October 27. The Pirates will have a chance to avenge their overtime loss to Marshall on November 24 in 2012's regular-season finale.
Finding the correct replacement for Davis is the primary goal before ECU begins a new streak of bowl game appearances. Other than the QB position, the Pirates have very few glaring problems on offense.
The defense allowed too many points per game last season, but it was its first in the 3-4. The progression of the defense could be enough to bring ECU a winning season in 2012.