Ruffin McNeil's third year at the helm of his alma mater began with a non- conference win over Appalachian State (35-13) which was followed by a lopsided loss to South Carolina (48-10). ECU bounced back with a win at Southern Miss (24-14) in the conference opener but faltered offensively against North Carolina (27-6). The Pirates then played very well throughout their league schedule with six wins against just one loss at UCF (40-20). They also dropped a 56-28 decision to Navy in their non-conference finale. Thanks to a double- overtime win in a thriller with Marshall, McNeil made his second appearance as the Pirates' head coach on the sidelines of a bowl game.
McNeil is 20-19 in his career as a head coach with one win coming as interim head coach of Texas Tech in 2009.
OFFENSE: ECU had the 36th-best passing offense in the nation last season with an average of 273.1 yards per game. Junior quarterback Shane Carden took over the full-time starting duty early in the season and showed progress each time he took the field.
"Offensively, with a lot of guys returning, (coordinator) Lincoln (Riley) was able to run, speed up and "NASCAR" things even more than we have in the past," said McNeil. "Seeing fundamental improvement, things like footwork and body position, on the offensive line, where cohesiveness is needed, was important."
The sophomore passer had a career-day in the regular season finale as he rushed for three touchdowns and also converted 38-of-47 passes for 439 yards and three more scores. He finished the regular season with 3,116 yards and 23 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
"He does a great job extending plays, so I know he'll continue that strength of his. I saw continued improvement on his footwork this spring, as I did with his trust in the pocket, letting the routes develop," said McNeil on Carden. "I thought he made a lot of progress towards the end of last season when he stayed patient in the pocket, giving guys maybe half a second longer to get open. He continues to get better with that and there's nothing that ever slows him down from getting extra reps and staying focused in the learning process."
Carden is going to be the key player for this offensive unit especially with junior wideout Justin Hardy back in the mix.
Hardy was a First-Team All-Conference USA selection in 2012 as a receiver and a second-team choice as a punt returner. He became just the fourth wideout in school history to reach the 1,000-yard mark with 1,105 which he accomplished on 88 receptions. Hardy is one of 75 wide receivers named to the 2013 Biletnikoff Award Watch List. Jabril Solomon (410 yards) and Danny Webster (332 yards, five TDs) are both quality options Carden will utilize in the passing game when Hardy is contained.
The rushing attack also has a proven leader back in Vintavious Cooper, who cracked the 1,000-yard mark with 1,049 a season ago. The 5-foot-9 speedster will play a huge role as it appears McNeil has very little depth to work with at the position. The only other rusher that had more than 12 carries left on the roster is Michael Dobson, but he was converted to safety over the offseason. John Barnes-Smith and Chris Hairston are the top backups heading into the season.
Considering McNeil is a disciple of Mike Leach, the offensive line did a decent job in 2012 with only 2.2 sacks allowed per game. The Pirates have back Will Simmons, who has started 25 games and earned a 2012 second-team All-CUSA selection along with Jordan Davis (24 career starts), Adhem Elsawi (20 career starts) and Grant Harner (20 career starts).
DEFENSE: ECU is destined for some change on the defensive side of the ball with new coordinator Rick Smith taking over a group the includes eight returning starters. Smith has his work cut out for him though, as the Pirates surrendered 430.7 yards of total offense per game in 2012, which ranked eighth in the conference.
Linebacker Jeremy Grove is back after recording a team-high 83 tackles including 4.5 for loss. Senior Kyle Tudor will take over the one starting linebacker spot that was vacated by Daniel Drake. Derrel Johnson (62 tackles, 7.0 sacks) and Gabe Woullard (49 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) are both very aggressive defenders on the outside of the formation.
The front three will rotate the likes of Lee Pegues (36 tackles, 4.5 for loss), Terrell Stanley (6-2, 252), Chrishon Rose (6-4, 299) and Terry Williams (46 tackles, 5.5 for loss) in hopes of pressuring the opposing quarterback. ECU registered only 2.0 sacks per game last season and had one of the worst pass defenses (275.7 yards per game) among FBS teams.
The secondary has an NFL prospect in Damon Magazu to lead it this season. The senior free safety finished second on the team behind Grove with 80 total tackles and also notched an interception in the regular season finale off of the conference's leading passer, Rakeem Cato. Chip Armstrong, also a senior, will be starting in the other safety spot after leading the unit with three picks last year. Adonis Armstrong, Lamar Ivey and the converted Dobson comprise the rest of the experienced defensive backfield for the Pirates.
SPECIAL TEAMS: ECU has a reliable place kicker in Warren Harvey, who connected on all 50 of his extra-point attempts in 2012. He also drilled 12-of-13 of his field goal tries from inside of 40 yards, but went just 3-of-7 from 40 and beyond. Harvey scored 10 or more points in five of the final seven games to close out 2012. Senior punter Trent Tignor will handle the fourth-and-long situations after finishing fourth in the C-USA in yards (2,779) last year.
Hardy is an elite punt returning by the conference's standards and will give ECU great field position consistently if his coach continues to use him on special teams. Derrick Harris was the team's primary kick returner in 2012 (22 returns, 454 yards) as a junior.
OUTLOOK: ECU's three-headed monster on the offensive side of the ball gives it a strong chance of being crowned the Conference USA champion in 2013. McNeil has done a spectacular job of implementing a high-powered offensive system in Greenville and the school has a very favorable schedule for the upcoming season.
McNeil's team will open with a FCS opponent in Old Dominion at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, where it will host Florida Atlantic and Virginia Tech after that. The Pirates will then take their show on the road to square off with North Carolina, Middle Tennessee and Tulane. They will then return to Greenville to take on Southern Miss before a trip South to face FAU. ECU then has its final two home games versus Tulsa and UAB which it will follow with a regular-season ending road trip with stops at NC State and Marshall.
ECU did not have its 2012 end ideally, but the team has a great chance of going back to the postseason as it kept intact many important aspects of both the offense and defense. The C-USA will be weaker thanks to the departures of programs like UCF, Houston, SMU and Memphis for the AAC, where the Pirates will play next season.