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Pirate Notebook No. 469
Monday, August 22, 2011

Denny O'Brien

Burning questions as season approaches

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Year two of the Ruffin McNeill era approaches with optimism. Just this week, East Carolina announced it shattered its season ticket record, and discussions are already taking place to increase Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium’s capacity to nearly 60,000.

With the potential for future conference shuffling, there is even more anticipation from fans as the 2011 season creeps closer.

After winning five of its first seven in 2010, The Pirates limped down the finish largely due to a rash of injuries along the defensive front. A new season, a new-look defense, and a renewed focus give the Pirates more hope.

As the opener with South Carolina approaches, here are a few questions facing the Pirates this fall:

••• 1. Will East Carolina be more productive offensively? Perhaps the more appropriate question is how will it not?

With the return of triggerman Dominique Davis, a deep receiving corps headlined by Lance Lewis, and young but talented running backs and offensive linemen, the Pirates have plenty of firepower to go with the experience they gained in Lincoln Riley’s pass-first philosophy last fall.

It’s hard to envision Davis more comfortable than he seemed last year, but consider he didn’t even have a spring practice under his belt then. Now imagine how he’ll perform with 13 games, spring practice, and two training camps under his belt.

Pretty scary.

The one caveat is that the Pirates’ production, for the most part, experienced a drop off against tough non-conference opponents last year. Thus, the measuring stick for ECU should be how well it performs offensively outside of Conference USA.

••• 2. Can the Pirates return to respectability on defense? Easily the biggest and most important question facing ECU, the Pirates have zero chance of contending for the C-USA title without significant improvement here. And that’s an understatement considering the Pirates were among the nation’s worst defenses in 2010.

Given the last four conference champions (UCF, ECU, ECU, UCF), the formula for a conference title should be pretty clear: very good defense and efficiency on offense mark the path to the Liberty Bowl.

Considering the talent level and the presence of new schemes, the Pirates are unlikely to experience that much of a revival. But you have to believe that the return of key players who missed significant snaps last year, along with a more aggressive approach, will lead to, at the very least, some improvement this fall.

••• 3. Can the Pirates survive their frontloaded schedule? They'd better. ECU’s non-conference schedule is as imposing as ever, headlined by South Carolina and Virginia Tech, each of which is predicted to contend for league titles.

But it isn’t so much the pedigree of the opponents on the Pirates’ early docket that is the concern as it is the physical make-up and philosophies of what they do.

Both South Carolina and Virginia Tech want to saddle their bruising rushing attacks and dominate the line of scrimmage. Likewise for North Carolina, which the Pirates face a week after meeting UAB.

The Pirates need to survive the opening leg of their schedule both physically and mentally. How well they do that will dictate their success in league play.

••• 4. Will conference shakeups occur during the season? Where there is smoke, there is generally fire. Given how close the Southeastern Conference was to pulling the trigger on Texas A&M a couple of weeks ago, it should come as no surprise if the dominos start falling by mid-year.

That timing has proven to be the case in the past.

••• 5. Will the Pirates go bowling again? Tough call. The Pirates must overcome an unforgiving schedule and find a way to beat at least one of their non-conference opponents to make it six straight postseason appearances. Considering that Navy, their least talented non-conference foe, scored 76 in Greenville last year, that’s no easy task.

Two of the Pirates’ toughest conference games — Central Florida and Southern Miss — are at home, and they could use a split there. This is also a year in which ECU can’t afford that historical gotcha game — Texas-El Paso and Marshall seem to be potential candidates to spring such an unpleasant surprise.

Bottom line, if ECU wins at least one non-conference game, beats either UCF or USM and avoids a head-scratching loss (i.e., Rice 2010), expect it to keep the bowl streak alive. Stumble in any of those areas and the Pirates are likely staying home.

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08/22/2011 03:26 AM

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