It’s the dawn of a new era in Greenville, as QB Shane Carden and WR Justin Hardy move on to the next level.
By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
Carden and Hardy have already gone down as two of the all-time greats to ever play for ECU, leaving a specter of uncertainty entering 2015. Plus, it’s not as if the Pirates are carrying a head of steam into the new year. They were unable to handle prosperity—and the spotlight—last fall, slumping to a 2-4 finish after entering the national lexicon with back-to-back upsets of Virginia Tech and North Carolina. The offense will also be missing leading rusher Breon Allen and influential coordinator Lincoln Riley, making for an intriguing offseason for head coach Ruffin McNeill and the rest of the staff.
If East Carolina has staying power as one of the recognizable faces of the Group of Five , this would be the year to go out and prove it. The program has won 26 games over the last three seasons, erasing a slow start for McNeill, but now it’s facing an unforeseen amount of adversity. How it responds to that adversity will answer plenty about the immediate trajectory of the Pirates.
Naturally, all eyes this offseason have been fixed on the race to replace Carden, a three-Pirate competition between Kurt Benkert, Blake Kemp and Cody Keith that’ll need an extra session to determine a starter. Benkert, Carden’s understudy, makes the most sense, though, he failed to shut the down on the competition in the spring. He’ll get a second chance to do so in the summer. ECU will also be using the month of August to determine a pecking order at the skill positions and continue plugging in new starters at each unit of the D. In a year when the passing game doesn’t figure to be nearly as influential as in recent seasons, the Pirates will need more input and production from all regions of the two-deep.
Change is in the air in Greenville, as the program begins turning the page on a memorable three-year stretch. There’ll be new leaders in charge on offense, and a massive void in the passing game. But East Carolina, with a rich history as a giant killer, was never about one player or one senior class. McNeill has built the Pirates to be perennially competitive in the American, though a dip in production seems unavoidable in light of the new personnel currently being worked into the mix.
What you need to know about the offense: QB Shane Carden. WR Justin Hardy. Precocious coordinator Lincoln Riley. All gone. The Air Raid, the high-flying system that helped put ECU back on the map in recent years, is staying put in Greenville. But can the next wave of Pirates, both on the field and on the sidelines, operate it properly? That is a question that will determine East Carolina’s potential in 2015. A successor to Carden has yet to be determined, though 2014 backup Kurt Benkert ought to be considered the odds-on favorite. Hardy’s prolific production will require a collaboration, beginning with slot receiver Isaiah Jones and including Trevon Brown, Davon Grayson, Jimmy Williams and underrated TE Bryce Williams. The backs are similarly competitive, with senior Chris Hairston eyeing a breakout final year. Along the O-line, the situation is promising, provided the Pirates can improve in pass protection from a season ago. The battle to replace last year’s only graduating starter, C Taylor Hudson, is being waged between all-league G J.T. Boyd and three-time letterwinner C.J. Struyk.
What you need to know about the defense: There were ups and there were downs for Rick Smith’s D in 2014, a typical season of give and take for this group. Now, the Pirates seek greater consistency, despite losing a pair of key starters from each level of the D. The encouraging fact for Smith is that he brings back a solid foundation of talent, one that’s sound enough in the front seven to build off last year’s prowess against the run. ECU should be fine at the point of attack, aided by the return to health of top pass rusher Terrell Stanley. And Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton will bolster the second level from inside and outside, respectively. But the newcomers to the lineup, all six of them, must make the transition to the starting lineup a seamless one. Demetri McGill takes over for all-leaguer Terry Williams at the nose, a crucial position in the team’s 3-4 alignment. Sophomores Jordan Williams and Joe Allely, a walk-on, are in the lead to join Bigger and Overton in the lineup at linebacker. The secondary has been the sight of intense competition, which Smith hopes will continue bringing out the best in his defensive backs this summer.
What to watch for on offense: Keeping the competition open. The Pirates have a gaping hole behind center now that all-time leading passer Shane Carden has exhausted his eligibility. Sophomore Kurt Benkert was last year’s backup, and remains the favorite to start the opener following a solid spring. He’s grasped the system, and is the most physical of the contenders. But new coordinator Dave Nichol wants to see better execution at the position, so Benkert, junior Cody Keith and JUCO transfer Blake Kemp are listed as deadlocked on the post-spring depth chart.
What to watch for on defense: Stanley’s sequel. East Carolina is facing defensive holes, two lost starters from each level, in fact. But the unit can take solace in the healthy return of DE Terrell Stanley, a budding star before suffering a near-fatal car accident in early 2014. He missed the entire season, robbing the front of a talented and multi-dimensional pass rusher. There was rust in the spring, as expected. But there were also flashes of the old Stanley, which the Pirates need to see more of as the retooling continues on this side of the ball.
This team will be far better if … it consistently turns up the heat and generates defensive mayhem. East Carolina doesn’t boast a great D, but it can be opportunistic, as was the case two years ago in Greenville. Last year, however, the Pirates ranked eighth in the American in both takeaways and sacks. And the secondary suffered because of it. Now that the defensive backfield must replace CB Detric Allen and S Lamar Ivey, it’s incumbent upon the front seven to force opposing quarterbacks into hurried decisions.
– For the 20th consecutive year, East Carolina will face an ACC opponent, hosting Virginia Tech in Greenville on Sept. 26.
– The Week 2 trek to Gainesville will mark a rematch of the Jan. 3 Birmingham Bowl, which was won by the Gators, 28-20.
– The Pirates will play games on the season’s first ten weekends, and are one of three American teams that must wait until Nov. 14 before enjoying a bye week.
– If the Pirates are going to contend in the East Division, they’ll need to remain healthy and finish strong. Following the bye, ECU finishes the regular season by travelling to UCF and hosting Cincinnati.
– After opening with Towson, East Carolina will need to buckle up, because four of the next five games are away from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and the one home date is with the Hokies.
– WATCH OUT FOR … SMU. After facing Florida, Navy and Va Tech in consecutive weeks, the Pirates might be gassed by the time they get to Dallas. Plus, the Mustangs will have had a full month of games running Chad Morris’ system by early October.
Best Offensive Player: Junior WR Isaiah Jones. He is not Justin Hardy. But he is a luxury for a program looking to replace its most prolific pass-catcher ever. At an absolute minimum, Jones will be a sure-handed security blanket from “H”, one of the slot positions, for a new starting quarterback who might be hesitant to take too many downfield chances. Jones is the program’s only returning receiver to catch more than 25 balls in 2014, so he’ll be counted on to be both a physical and an emotional leader for the corps this fall.
Best Defensive Player: Senior LB Zeek Bigger. Bigger was better last season. He built on a breakthrough sophomore season in 2013 by leading the American in tackles. Bigger plays fast and furious, displaying the range that the Pirate staff covets in its defenders. While No. 44 will once again rack up huge numbers all over the field, he’ll also be the elder statesman of a linebacker unit missing two starters. In other words, Bigger’s value to the program will not be relegated to what happens on Saturdays.
Key player to a successful season: The new quarterback. Odds are it’ll be Kurt Benkert in the huddle when Towson visits on Sept. 5. But whoever gets the nod from Ruffin McNeill ought to prepared to hang points on the board. No, no one expects the heir to Shane Carden to be an exact replica of Shane Carden. That’s just not realistic. However, this program’s most recent run of stability has been built on an Air Raid attack that McNeill brought over from Texas Tech. This won’t be vintage ECU if it isn’t filling the air with balls and averaging at least 30 points per game.
The season will be a success if … the Pirates finish north of .500. Earning at least eight wins for a fourth season in a row might be a reach the year after QB Shane Carden and WR Justin Hardy graduate. Plus, a rugged schedule includes trips to Florida, Navy, BYU and UCF. In a year when so many key personnel and staffing changes are occurring, East Carolina will do well to remain in the upper half of the American, qualify for a postseason game and continue stringing together winning seasons.
Key game: Oct. 22 vs. Temple. Do not look beyond the Owls, ECU. Temple is going to be a tough out all year, because the defense will be among the stingiest in the American. And if the retooled Pirate offense hasn’t found its rhythm by this point of the year, avenging last fall’s loss to the Owls will require a 60-minute battle at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. With so many landmines on the schedule, East Carolina must deliver when it’s favored at home, such as Week 8 when Temple comes to town.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Yards per game: East Carolina 533.0 – Opponents 367.3
– Sacks: East Carolina 21 – Opponents 32
– Third-down%: East Carolina 47% – Opponents 34%
Players You Need To Know
1. LB Zeek Bigger, Sr.
Bigger was a good player in 2013, his first season as a starter. He was dominant, though, in 2014, blossoming into one of the American’s premier defensive players. The total package of speed, strength and football acumen, he led the league with 140 tackles to earn Second Team All-AAC. At 6-2 and 216 pounds, Bigger closes like a safety, and his knowledge of opposing offenses ensures he’s usually in the right place at the right time.
2. DE Terrell Stanley, Sr.
After nearly losing his life to a harrowing Feb. 12, 2014 car accident, Stanley continues to work toward a return to the football program. Before being severely injured, and missing the 2014 campaign, Stanley was East Carolina’s best defensive lineman. The versatile 6-2, 268-pounder earned honorable mention All-Conference USA in 2013 as a defensive and nose tackle, making 46 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Fingers are crossed around Greenville that Stanley can recapture his old unruly form.
3. WR Isaiah Jones, Jr.
It’ll be impossible to replace Justin Hardy, who caught more passes than any player in NCAA history. But the 6-1, 197-pound Jones will do his best to pick up the slack in 2015. He ranked second on the 2014 team with 81 receptions for 830 yards and five touchdowns, serving as a sure-handed and heady target out of the slot. Jones must now go out and prove he can elevate his overall play, as defenses become more focused on shutting him down.
4. OT Ike Harris, Sr.
Harris is back for one more season to headline the Pirates’ tackles. The third-year starter from the left side continued to grow in 2014, finishing his junior season on the All-AAC Second Team. At 6-7 and 309 pounds, he has obvious length along with the long arms to control oncoming traffic. While he still needs some fine-tuning before the NFL sets eyes on him, Harris will be one of his league’s top pocket protectors in 2015.
5. LB Montese Overton, Sr.
The Pirates love what they get from Overton, speed, intensity and outstanding range from a linebacker. He’s one of the program’s fastest defenders, despite being 6-3 and 221 pounds. The coaching staff continued employing Overton on blitz packages, unleashing him for 68 tackles, 11.5 stops behind the line, three sacks and five hurries. He has a game-changing burst from strongside, but can also be dropped back into coverage to blanket backs and receivers.
6. CB Josh Hawkins, Sr.
Hawkins has enjoyed a rapid ascent of late, peaking with a breakout junior year in 2014. The former walk-on, who turned down scholarship offers from Delaware State and Winston-Salem State, evolved into the Pirates’ best defensive back a season ago. The physical 5-10, 185-pounder picked off a team-high five passes and ranked second in the American with 16 passes defended. After being passed over last fall, Hawkins ought to be All-AAC-bound in 2015.
7. C J.T. Boyd, Jr.
No one on the Pirate roster was a bigger surprise in 2014 than Boyd, who made the unlikely trip from opening day backup to Second Team All-AAC. He was a key cog for the Pirates, especially in the running game, holding up well at the point of attack. The 6-4, 302-pound Boyd is difficult to move off his base, driving opponents backwards. And he’ll be even better now that he has a year of experience behind him. After playing guard last fall, Boyd is battling C.J. Struyk to replace all-star C Taylor Hudson.
8. RB Chris Hairston, Sr.
The graduation of Breon Allen means Hairston gets his first shot at a starring role out of the backfield. If last season is any example of his potential, he ought to be just fine in 2015. The 6-0, 205-pound Hairston came off the bench to rush for 528 yards and two touchdowns on only 79 carries, displaying good size and shiftiness in the open field. If he can avoid injuries, which has been an issue, he has a 1,000-yard ceiling in Greenville.
9. DE Fred Presley, Jr.
Presley has far exceeded expectations since arriving in Greenville without a scholarship. The Pirates’ Most Improved Defensive Player of 2014 started just four games, yet led the team with six sacks and was third with eight tackles for minus yards. Even more impressive is Presley’s versatility and agility for such a big lineman. Although the 6-3, 271-pounder is tough enough to clog running lanes, he also possesses the quickness to shoot the gaps. His role should expand in 2015, even if it means spelling Terrell Stanley from the bench.
10. WR Bryce Williams, Sr.
Williams is one of the better-kept secrets on the Pirate offense. The former walk-on at Marshall is the closest thing the Pirates have to a tight end, a 6-6, 258-pound inside receiver with sure hands. In two seasons in Greenville, he’s been a preferred target in the red zone, turning 38 catches into 457 yards and nine touchdowns. East Carolina’s go-to guy in ‘jumbo’ packages is hoping to attract NFL attention after landing on the All-AAC Second Team in 2014.
|Sept. 12||at Florida|
|Sept. 19||at Navy|
|Sept. 26||Virginia Tech|
|Oct. 3||at SMU|
|Oct. 10||at BYU|
|Oct. 30||at Connecticut|
|Nov. 7||South Florida|
|Nov. 14||OPEN DATE|
|Nov. 19||at UCF|
|Ten Best ECU Players|
|1. LB Zeek Bigger, Sr.|
|2. DE Terrell Stanley, Sr.|
|3. WR Isaiah Jones, Jr.|
|4. OT Ike Harris, Sr.|
|5. LB Montese Overton, Sr.|
|6. CB Josh Hawkins, Sr.|
|7. C J.T. Boyd, Jr.|
|8. RB Chris Hairston, Sr.|
|9. DE Fred Presley, Jr.|
|10. WR Bryce Williams, Sr.|