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Pirate Notebook No. 463
Monday, February 28, 2011

Denny O'Brien

Pressing questions entering spring camp

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

With signing day in the rear view mirror, East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill's full attention is now on spring practice. After a 6-7 finish that included a loss to Maryland in the Military Bowl, ECU's primary focus this spring is fairly simple:


If the Pirates have any designs on returning to the top of the Conference USA standings, they must make significant strides in many areas within the program. Some have been well documented, some haven't.

Some of the more pressing questions facing the Pirates as spring camp approaches:

Will the defense improve?

On one hand, how could it not? The Pirates were among the worst nationally in almost every defensive category in 2010, so it appears there is only one way to go:


The good news is that ECU should welcome back defensive tackle Michael Brooks and defensive ends Marke Powell and Justin Dixon, who missed much of 2010 with injuries. Their injuries exposed the Pirates' lack of depth along the defensive front, and opponents were able to exploit that heavily over the last five games of the season.

The Pirates also welcome a host of junior college transfers, including Leroy Vick, who should provide immediate assistance at defensive end. If ECU can stay relatively healthy this spring, McNeill should feel a little better about his defense entering fall camp.

Are position changes coming?

If so, now's the time to do it. And given the Pirates' deficiencies at linebacker last season, McNeill and defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell should consider shuffling some of their personnel back to the position.

Namely Dixon and Powell, who were moved to defensive end last year to provide speed on the edge.

Now that ECU should have more depth on the edge of its defensive front, it seems like a good time to shift Dixon and Powell back to their natural positions. The move would add speed to a unit that was severely lacking it last year, while also adding size to the group they would be departing.

Dixon and Powell are both very talented. And it seems like that talent would be best utilized at linebacker.

Who fills the void left by Dwayne Harris?

It's tempting to assume Lance Lewis will. During the latter half of 2010, he established himself as the Pirates' best downfield threat.

But you have to remember that Lewis and Harris are completely different players.

While Lewis is easily the more pure receiver, Harris is a far more versatile athlete. His presence expanded offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's playbook, as Harris was also a threat on the ground and with his arm.

The short answer is that Harris's absence must be accounted for with a by-committee approach.

Can a consistent running game be established?

ECU lost its top two rushers from a running game that was inconsistent at best. Even against weak opponents, the Pirates struggled to move the chains on the ground.

It's no secret that ECU has no interest in leading the nation in rushing — or finishing in the middle of the pack for that matter — but you can have a successful ground attack without posting gaudy statistics. Simply boasting a solid per-carry average and possessing the ability to extend drives in 3rd-and-short scenarios would suffice in the Pirates' pass-happy offense.

ECU's lack of experience at running back and questions along the offensive front are definitely cause for concern. Junior college transfer Reggie Bullock could be asked to carry much of the load, which speaks volumes about the Pirates' lack of experienced depth at the position.

Will the Pirates be more physically prepared?

The return of Jeff Connors as the Pirates' new assistant athletics director for strength and conditioning certainly is a good start. During his first stint in Greenville, ECU built a reputation for outlasting opponents.

Towards the end of 2010, the Pirates appeared sluggish at best. There wasn't nearly as much spring in their step, and by the time the Military Bowl rolled around, ECU appeared to be running in slow-mo compared to Maryland.

Connors has a knack for connecting with the types of athletes ECU traditionally recruits, and his motivational tactics typically make players want to work harder. And that's not easy to do in today's culture.

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Denny O'Brien Archives

02/28/2011 02:25 AM

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