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Thursday, March 22, 2012
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Features Writer

Part I: Charting the Pirates' 2012 Journey

Breaking Down the 2012 Edition of Pirate Football

Editor's note: With the East Carolina Pirates ramping up for the Ruffin McNeill regime's third go-round of spring drills, the timing is opportune for Ron Cherubini to delve into the good, the not-so-good, the unknowns and the possibilities surrounding the program. Cherubini examines the state of the nation — the Pirate Football Nation — in three articles. Part I provides an introduction to the series; Part II focuses on the ECU offensive unit's strengths and weaknesses; and Part III analyzes the potential of the Pirates' defensive unit.

Ron Cherubini's Three-part Spring Football Preview:
• Thursday, Mar. 22 (Part I): Charting the Pirates' 2012 Journey
• Friday, Mar. 23 (Part II): With Davis gone, can 'O' raid again?
• Monday, Mar. 26 (Part III): Respectable 'D' now seeking greatness

Spring camp an opportunity to improve the good and fix the bad

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

In 2010, it was an epic defensive failure that killed East Carolina’s chances to continue its run of winning seasons. In 2011, it was a mistake-prone offense and ineffective special teams that produced a losing season and ended the Pirates' string of five consecutive bowl seasons.

Each year in Coach Ruffin McNeil’s fledgling era has been marked by an uncanny set of circumstances which have led to massive failures in at least one phase of the game. Likewise, each year in the era has also been followed by a massive reclamation that has yielded remarkable results.

Can the coaches get ahead of the curve in 2012? That is the question.

A third-straight mediocre season will likely elevate the low-level buzz about the program’s direction to a more boisterous din.

Sit tight. For the first time since his arrival, Ruff is playing the game with a full deck of cards and both hands untied. In 2010, he faced the daunting task of playing football with a decimated defense. In 2011, he encountered unimaginable offensive attrition.

But, as we embark upon 2012 spring football, aside from shoring up special teams and having to replace an outstanding quarterback and a pair of kickers, Ruff has a very solid base to build upon.

Though replacing a record-setting quarterback usually spells one or two more losses in most programs, one of the benefits of this offense is that it is built for the guy who has learned the system best.

At Texas Tech, this staff saw a string of prolific one-year starters for the Red Raiders and there is no reason to believe that it can’t and won’t happen here at ECU. The Pirates have three capable QBs battling for the job. Otherwise, the offense will be improved with a very good receiving corps, an offensive line that is now fully experienced and depth at running back.

The defense has the makings of a very good unit after making monumental strides a year ago. If the unit can go from good, to game changing — meaning that it must improve at taking the ball away — then the team may be able to successfully negotiate the front-loaded schedule and set the table for a big year.

There will be some missing faces in camp this time around with three prominent players no longer on the roster. OLB Marke Powell, perhaps the biggest stunner, WR Mike Price, and defensive back Rakheem Morgan are no longer Pirates.

Also, talented WR Danny Webster, star ILB Jeremy Grove, and young RB Chris Hairston are likely not to participate in the spring activities as they continue to rehab injuries. OT Grant Harner may also miss part of the spring camp as he finishes up rehab.

For the most part, however, all of the names expected to be in the thick of camp battles are locked and loaded to go along with a pair of JUCO defensive backs who enrolled in January.

The coaches must solve the mess that was special teams a year ago and took a step in that direction when they hired former Pirate and long-time coaching vet Kirk Doll. Doll should be able to turn things around quickly with the experience that returns. Hopefully, Doll will be able to quick-fix the biggest issue – the kick coverage units.

New kickers must be found, but there is experience on the roster. And consistent return men must emerge.

Doll is up to the task.

The staff also added another former Red Raider in outside receivers coach Dave Nichol who came over from Arizona where he also coached OWRs, so continuity in philosophy should exist there.

As has been customary of late, the schedule starts out in daunting fashion with four games that bring special challenges. In short, the schedule is not kind. First, the Pirates open with FCS juggernaut Appalachian State at home in a game in which the Pirates will be criticized unless they win convincingly. It's tough enough to play a formidable App State team, but a matchup with the Mountaineers on opening day with a trip to South Carolina looming seven days later is a classic trap game to start the season.

Yeah… then it is off to face a loaded South Carolina team at Williams-Brice Stadium place followed by two more road games at Southern Miss and North Carolina. That stretch is not only physically demanding, it will push the mental fatigue factor to the max.

This is why it is critical for this spring to be about refining, not defining, what the Pirates do well. The camp should be a good one in regards to the players understanding what to do and where to be. But battles need to be picked and won quickly so that the depth chart is solid coming out at camp, particularly at QB, so the front-liners can ramp hard for the fall.

Starting tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at the young men who will wage the battles this spring.

Editor's note: This introductory article is the first in Ron Cherubini's three-part spring football preview series. Part II, focusing on East Carolina's offense, will be published on Friday, Mar. 23, 2012. Part III, which examines the Pirates' defense, will be published on Monday, Mar. 26, 2012.

E-mail Ron Cherubini

PAGE UPDATED 03/26/12 03:24 AM.

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