ECU expectations high in final year in C-USA
HUNTINGTON -- Last season, East Carolina's football team had no answer for the Marshall University offense.
That is, except to simply outscore the Thundering Herd.
It made for an epic battle that East Carolina won, 65-59, in double-overtime, ending the Marshall season and catapulting the Pirates to an 8-5 finish under head coach Ruffin McNeil.
East Carolina returns 16 starters -- eight on each side of the football -- and, like Marshall, expectations are extremely high for the Pirates in their final season as a member of Conference USA.
The same offense that produced 65 points on the Herd returns with lots of pieces intact, especially at the skill positions where the three most vital cogs are back for McNeil's Air Raid attack.
While quarterback Shane Carden is the fuel that will determine whether the engine goes, he's made to look especially good by wide receiver Justin Hardy, who joins Marshall's Tommy Shuler as Conference USA's top returning pass catchers.
Hardy caught 88 passes for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012 and made Carden look much better than what he was at times with his ability to get wide-open.
Another key threat will be running back Vintavious Cooper, who rushed for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns to earn the honors as the C-USA Newcomer of the Year.
Cooper was suspended in March following an arrest for marijuana possession, but McNeil reinstated him in June after Cooper underwent a series of steps to regain his status on the team.
With a new lease on life and a year's experience, Cooper could become the X-factor for the Pirates with much of the focus on Hardy and the passing attack.
That passing attack is led by Carden, who came off the bench early last season and passed for 3,116 yards and 23 touchdowns.
He and Marshall's Rakeem Cato will not only be the top two quarterbacks in C-USA, they will likely be among the national leaders in passing.
Look for receiver Lance Ray to emerge as a threat, as well as Reese Wiggins, the 'X' receiver.
The offensive front returns four guys with starting experience, but the biggest onus will be on sophomore left tackle Isaac Harris, who will be asked to protect Carden's blind side in a more permanent role after getting experience as a freshman.
Adhem Elsawi is at right tackle, but the strength of the line is inside where Jordan Davis (left guard) and Will Simmons (right guard) push the pile in the rushing attack. Simmons is a mammoth at 6-foot-5, 342 pounds and was an all-conference second team selection.
The center will be Taylor Hudson, who is coming back after an injury brought a premature end to his 2012 year.
While the starting front is strong, depth is rather unproven and could be an issue -- especially considering the Pirates were 78th in sacks allowed last year.
It might seem a little redundant, but, like Marshall, East Carolina is expected to make big defensive improvements from last season to 2013.
There is experience and talent at each position of the 3-4 scheme, and the linebackers are the strength of the defense -- a good sign for McNeil and staff.
East Carolina employs a strong run defense, but that is counter-balanced by a lack of ability to cover receivers in the secondary. That is why a pass rush along the defensive front will be crucial.
Returning defensive end Lee Pegues will man one starting spot while it is expected that Terrell Stanley will get the nod at the other end position.
In the teeth of the defensive front is Terry Williams, who started nine games and finished with 46 tackles and 5.5 for loss -- pretty strong numbers for a tackle in a three-man front.
The corps of linebackers is strong with Derrell Johnson, a 6-2, 264-pound outside linebacker, joining Jeremy Grove to anchor the second level of the defense.
Grove finished with 83 tackles at inside linebacker last season while Johnson, a star in the making after his transition from defensive end, finished with 62 tackles and seven sacks.
They will be joined by outside linebacker Gabriel Woullard and Kyle Tudor, who will line up inside next to Grove.
If there is a huge question mark about the Pirates, it is in the secondary where the pass defense has struggled.
The unit is headed by Damon Magazu, who excels in both run and pass situations. However, the talent around him is spotty.
The strong safety position will be anchored by Chip Thompson, who contributed 57 tackles last season.
The corner positions will be manned by Adonis Armstrong (field corner), who started nine games and had 43 tackles. Detric Allen will take over at the boundary corner position.
It's an unsettling combination for a defense that allowed 28 passing touchdowns in 2012.
Warren Harvey returns as the kicker after hitting 15 of 20 field goal attempts. Punter Trent Tignor had a 43-yard average.
Simply put, East Carolina has all the tools to be in the same position as Marshall -- a potential BCS-buster -- heading into the Nov. 29 matchup in Huntington on the season's final week.
If both teams follow expectations, the matchup will likely be one of the top non-BCS games of the 2013 season.
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