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Pirate Notebook No. 470
Monday, August 29, 2011

Denny O'Brien

Details will define ECU's success

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Success is often buried in the details. That's true for any major organization, and a Division I FBS program is no exception.

Looking back at the 2010 season, it's fairly easy to identify the details behind East Carolina's stumbles down the stretch. Head coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff spent much of spring practice and preseason camp ironing those out in an effort to return the program to contention for the Conference USA crown.

With the Pirates' opener against South Carolina now days away, the ECU coaches are likely just dotting the I's and crossing the T's at this point.

There are some key areas in which East Carolina must demonstrate proficiency to make a run at the conference championship this season.


With several new faces and little experience playing together as a unit, it's hard to know what to expect here.

Line play is as much about chemistry and communication as it is brute force. McNeill has even emphasized on numerous occasions the importance of line play in this system that is so heavily predicated on pass protection. It's why his staff seeks a certain type of athlete to man the offensive front.

If the ECU line can't protect, the offense simply won't score. There seriously isn't much quarterback Dominique Davis can do if he's lying on his back.


That became an Achilles' heel as the 2010 season progressed, as the Pirates struggled at times to extend drives.

Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's aerial attack isn't designed with consuming clock as a priority, so to some degree you have to expect the Pirates' defense to log more minutes than the offense. But anything the ECU 'O' can do to give its 'D' a breather — i.e., converting on 3rd and inches — could go a long way towards improving the numbers on both sides of the scoreboard.


Given last season's defensive performance, along with the unknowns that accompany any schematic shift, field position is a premium. The importance of former Pirates punter Matt Dodge was often understated, but more than a couple of games were preserved by power of his right leg.

If the Pirates can reclaim the ability to flip the field on their opponents, it would greatly increase the defense's chance for success.


The Pirates aren't going undefeated, especially with a schedule frontloaded with a pair of programs with aspirations of winning Bowl Championship Series Automatic Qualifier conferences.

East Carolina is a heavy underdog against South Carolina, and, barring an upset over the Gamecocks, likely will be against Virginia Tech. Both ECU lines will be facing significant challenges, much bigger than the ones they faced against Navy, Rice, and Maryland last year.

The Pirates have every reason to believe they can go in and win both of those games, but it's reasonable to believe that either of those outcomes could be lopsided losses. Should that be the case, ECU needs to adopt the ability to forget what occurred and focus on the task ahead.


When you rank as low as the Pirates did last season defensively — which was among the worst nationally in every statistical category — there is nowhere to go but up.

Last season, much of the focus on the ECU defense was how easily teams, both mediocre and good, were able to exploit the Pirates between the tackles. Often lost in the statistical quagmire was the unit's inability to consistently apply pressure on the quarterback and, as a result, create turnovers.

The switch to a 3-4 alignment is an attempt to put more speed on the field and adopt a more aggressive approach. If successful, it should generate more opportunities for the ECU offense with shorter fields. If not, the Pirates could surrender more long-yardage plays than they did last year.


Penalties were one of the more consistent themes of the 2010 season, and probably the most frustrating for McNeill.

Offensively, ECU was intimately familiar with getting flagged for false starts, while defensively there were far too many infractions that consumed 15 yards. It's hard to seize or maintain momentum when officials are marking off yardage against you.

Needless to say, the Pirates must demonstrate better discipline this fall. Otherwise, this could spill negatively into the other details that ECU must improve.

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08/30/2011 02:12 AM

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