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Pirate Notebook No. 485
Monday, January 2, 2012

Denny O'Brien

Pirates should contend in 2012

By Denny O'Brien
©2012 Bonesville.net
All Rights Reserved.

Itís reasonable to think East Carolina will contend for its third Conference USA championship in 2012. Given the Piratesí volume of returnees and the numerous losses within the other traditional contenders, ECU is as safe a prediction as any to claim the league crown.

For starters, East Carolina returns the majority of its defense, including a deep and talented front seven. This unit was the surprise of 2011 as it evolved into the most consistent unit as the season progressed.

With more improvement, it could become the backbone for another championship run.

Offensively, the Pirates must replace quarterback Dominique Davis, but plenty of experience will surround the next ECU starter. Justin Hardy and Reese Wiggins are dangerous playmakers who will contend for all-league honors at receiver.

Both of C-USAís 2011 division winners ó Houston and Southern Miss ó are backfilling coaching staffs and the majority of their key personnel. With philosophical changes and an abundance of new faces, both programs should backslide next fall.

The schedule sets up much nicer for 2012, including two home non-conference games ó Appalachian and Navy ó in which the Pirates will be favored. ECU also avoids the best from the C-USAís West Division ó Southern Methodist and Tulsa ó while what some consider the Piratesí biggest threat in the East, Marshall, comes to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, where it has never won.

You wonít find a roster in C-USA that clearly has better talent than ECU, and certainly not a program with a better home field advantage. And while that is a solid foundation on which to begin another title march, there still are several To Doís that must be accomplished before the Pirates can claim another conference title:

Find a quarterback

Given the performance of most Texas Tech quarterbacks during the Mike Leach era, itís tempting to label the Air Raid offense a plug and play system. And to some degree, it is.
The key is identifying a field general who can make the correct calls at the line of scrimmage and deliver quick, precise throws. Arm strength isnít as much a priority as it is in a pro set, and mobility doesnít carry the importance of other adaptations of the spread.

Both Rio Johnson and Brad Wornick have over two years in the system and performed well in spot duty. Add Shane Carden and Cody Keith to the mix, and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley should find a sufficient QB from that bunch.

Establish a consistent rushing attack

This would greatly ease any burden under center, while also eliminating some of the predictability from the ECU offense. At times last season it appeared that the opposing defense had a better idea of the offensive play calls than the Pirates themselves.

The Piratesí inconsistency on the ground last fall was twofold: 1) Instability along the offensive front; and 2) the absence of a physical presence at running back. Riley tried to address the latter late in the season by shifting inside receiver Zico Pasut, a former tight end, to the backfield.

While it delivered some success, ECU needs to get better overall production here, especially in short-yardage situations. Perhaps North Carolina transfer Carter Furr, who blends size and speed, can help address this.

Tighten up on special teams

Easily the biggest weakness last fall, ECUís coverage units were a borderline embarrassment. Whether the Pirates were punting or kicking off, there always was the threat of a field-flipping return.

ECUís return units werenít much better. The Pirates experimented throughout the season with various return specialists, with little success. Combined with inconsistent punting and poor overall coverage, ECU typically got the short end of the field position battle.

The Pirates lost special teams coordinator Clay McGuire to Washington State, which probably isnít a bad thing. If he is replaced by Kirk Doll, which multiple sources have indicated is a possibility, the Pirates should experience a significant upgrade.

Replenish the secondary

This is where East Carolina suffered its most significant losses. Emanuel Davis was a four-year starter at corner, while Derrick Blacknall and Bradley Jacobs each manned starting spots in the secondary over the past two seasons.

While the Pirates do have some returnees here, fresh Juco faces must hit the ground running. Given the number of returnees along the front seven, opponents are likely to test the Pirates more through the air than on the ground.

Protect the football

About the only thing East Carolina offense did consistently in 2011 was turn the ball over. The Pirates did that abundantly. And many of ECUís turnovers were returned for scores, while many others put an improved defenseís heels inside the red zone.

Itís hard to envision the Pirates protecting the ball as carelessly as they did this past fall. Thatís just one of many reasons they should be a C-USA contender in 2012.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

PAGE UPDATED 01/03/12 02:39 AM.

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