Rick Bouch gives his take on the 2015 East Carolina Pirates Football, post Shane Carden and Junstin Hardy.
Nov 22, 2014; Greenville, NC, USA; East Carolina Pirates wide receiver Justin Hardy (2) and head coach Ruffin McNeill celebrate his record breaking catch during the 2nd quarter timeout against the Tulane Green Wave at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
McNeil, now in his sixth season, will plug in some new names at key positions and continue to build upon the 18 wins that the Pirates have amassed in the past two seasons. Both Hardy and Carden played big roles in those victories. Hardy, a former walk-on, finished his college career with 387 receptions. Carden passed David Garrard and Dominique Davis to become ECU’s passing leader. With 4,736 yards last season, Carden ended his career with 11,991 yards to go along with 86 touchdowns.
The offense should continue to flourish despite the losses of Hardy, Carden and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who left to take a similar position at Oklahoma. Dave Nichol, like Riley a disciple of Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense, will step in and not much will change. ECU threw the ball an average of 49 times per game. That will continue, but the keys to the offense will no longer be Carden’s.
McNeil and Nichol will look to Kurt Benkert, a 6-3, 225-pound sophomore who appears to be the starter heading into the fall. Cody Keith and Blake Kemp will battle Benkert for the starting nod. Whoever finds himself running the Pirates offense will do so behind a formidable offensive line as six players return that have started at least 10 games.
With Hardy gone, Isaiah Jones will become the go-to receiver. Jones, a 6-1 junior, caught 81 passes for 830 yards during the 2014 season. He and the new QB will be helped by the return of senior running back Chris Hairston. Hairston rushed for 528 yards, gaining 6.7 yards per carry.
Another plus for East Carolina is that their run defense, which was very good in 2014, returns intact. The front seven, led by linebacker Montrese Overton and defensive ends Fred Presley and Jonathon White, will be strong. The problem, though, is that while the run defense was solid last year, the pass defense was horrible.
Cornerback Josh Hawkins, who led the team with five interceptions, is back. The rest of the 2014 secondary contributed just three picks. There will be some turnover and McNeil hopes that a more effective pass rush can help the Pirates generate some big plays on defense.
The Pirates should find themselves in a bowl game. Of the last six games on this season’s schedule, three of the teams (Temple, Central Florida and Cincinnati) were bowl eligible last season. If you add UConn and South Florida, both who should be better in 2015, the road to a bowl game may be a little more difficult. The funny thing about football is that anything is possible. Who knows, ECU could find itself knocking on the door of the first-ever American Athletic Conference championship game.