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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
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
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
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.