By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: East Carolina took a big step forward in its final year in Conference USA, as the team won 10 games for just the second time in school history at the BCS level and, with a 37-20 triumph over Ohio in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl, ended a four-game losing streak in the postseason, while earning their first bowl win under head coach Ruffin McNeill.
Of course, the Pirates were navigating through a weaker schedule than they will face this season, as they battled in C-USA rather than the American Athletic Conference. ECU won six of its eight conference contests, losing to Tulane in triple-overtime (36-33), and dropping a 59-28 decision in the season finale at Marshall. The Pirates also lost to Virginia Tech (15-10), but they picked up some marquee non-conference wins against North Carolina and NC State to tally an impressive 10-3 overall record when all was said and done.
Now they just have to keep their recent string of success (seven bowl games in eight seasons) going in a new and tougher league.
"The challenge as a coach is what you welcome," Head coach Ruff McNeill said. "It's a great challenge. I look at it more as an opportunity for us."
OFFENSE: Shane Carden is already the best quarterback in the AAC without having thrown a pass in the league. That is in part because of a drop-off in star power at the position with the departure of players like Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, but it is mostly because of Carden's talent.
Last season, the 6-foot-2 signal caller threw for a career-high 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns while completing an astounding 70.5 percent of his pass attempts. He led C-USA in passing yards, attempts (549), completions (387) and passing efficiency rating (150). Although he will be facing some stouter defenses this time around, don't expect much to change.
The same could be said for the talented receiving duo the Pirates are fortunate enough to retain for their transition to the AAC. Justin Hardy was one of only 12 players at the FBS level to have at least 100 receptions last season, which helped him accumulate 1,284 yards and 8 touchdowns. Isaiah Jones (62 receptions, 604 yards, 5 TDs) is an excellent second option.
With such enviable talent at quarterback and wide receiver, the Pirates should once again be a team that racks up huge yardage totals through the air. They ranked 11th in the country in passing yards last season (328.1 ypg) and have been a top-20 team in the category in two of the last three years.
Vintavious Cooper, who rushed for 1,193 yards in his final season, needs to be replaced in the backfield. Breon Allen should be the man for the job, as he steps up from a backup role in this, his senior season. While spelling Cooper last season, Allen totaled 311 yards on 62 carries. He also showed some ability in limited opportunities in the pass game (nine receptions, 130 yards). He will need to continue to be a target considering Cooper had 44 receptions for 421 yards as the starter last season.
There are three starters along the offensive line that are back, and leading the way is center C.J. Struyk, with tackles Ike Harris and Tre Robertson flanking him.
DEFENSE: Like most teams that run at such an accelerated pace on offense, the Pirates' defensive numbers are not all that note-worthy. They allowed 368.8 yards per game last season, which was not terrible compared to the rest of the country, but not anything to write home about either.
The group lost a fair amount of talent in the offseason, with only four starters making their way back. Linebacker Zeek Bigger is perhaps the most important of those returning players. Bigger tallied 77 tackles last season, which is the most of any player that is back in the fold. Bigger does a lot more than just bring down the ball carrier, as he also had five passes defended and an interception. His ability to play both the run and pass is invaluable.
Elsewhere, defensive ends Terrell Stanley and Chrishon Rose also return to do battle in the trenches. Stanley tied for the most sacks on the team (7) last season and also contributed 10 tackles for loss and 45 stops overall. Rose had 6.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 of which were sacks. Montese Overton isn't technically a returning starter, but he had 6 sacks a year ago, so he clearly knows his way around the field.
As far as the secondary goes, cornerback Detric Allen (40 tackles, 3 passes defended) is the leader, although he has a lot to live up to if he hopes to aid in replacing Damon Magazu (80 tackles, 5 INTs).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Hardy was the primary punt returner last year and should be again for 2014. He averaged 11.3 yards per return on 20 tries. Returning kicks provides a bit more of a challenge with Lance Ray gone. Jones and Allen both had chances, but it is unlikely McNeill will want to risk three of his best skill position players in the return game.
Warren Harvey will still be the kicker, although he was inconsistent on field goals (15-of-25) as a junior. Worth Gregory and Davis Plowman are the punters on the roster, with the former likely to get the starting nod.
OUTLOOK: Yes, the schedule is going to be harder, but there are now more former C-USA teams than former Big East squads in the AAC, so making the new league out to be some kind of powerhouse is folly. Still ECU will need to be at the top of its game to replicate last year's results.
"The guys in our program, there's expectations placed upon you, and they accept it, and we accept those," McNeill said. "The expectations within our office and among the players is higher than anyone can put on them on the outside."
The non-conference portion of the schedule does no favors for the Pirates, as they play at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech and host North Carolina in three of the first four games. ECU will also play conference favorite Cincinnati on the road.
Carden is an absolute stud under center and Hardy and Jones are fantastic receivers. Even without Cooper, the offense should have no problems. A more threadbare defense could be a weakness, as could the uncertainty on special teams. Still, in a game that continues to favor the pass over the run, the Pirates have a leg up on most teams in their new league.
08/22 13:01:09 ET