Even the way the Pirates won the Beef O’Brady Bowl over Ohio seems fitting. A strong start, a frustrating couple of quarters, and then a dominating finish…seems to be a microcosm of a season that really – save the debacle at Marshall – probably should have been a 12-win season and a Top-20 final ranking. But there was a lot on display on Monday that bodes very well for this football program as the equipment staff gets to work on scraping and peeling off Conference USA logos from all-things ECU during the off-season.
The Pirates showed an ability to finish that has been missing for several years now as this program saw bowl game after bowl game slip from their fingers after memorable seasons. The unbelievable turn of events against Kentucky (was it a fumble??), the nightmare against Arkansas (really, three opportunities to win it?), and the fade against ULL (how do we just die in the 4th quarter?)…all good Pirate teams…all horrible finishes and all the ilk that makes a program stalled just short of breaking out. But on Monday, when it looked like another fail in the works, this team regrouped and dominated its way to a convincing exclamation point to the 10-win season.
If the program ever needed that validating win, it was this one. It didn’t matter that the opponent was a blah MAC team that was lucky to be in the game at all…it could have been a high school team really because it was the W that mattered more than the level of competition or name brand of the opponent. With the Pirates exiting CUSA and moving into the American, the table had to be set. With the continued churning in college football, the AAC is likely to be another stepping stone for programs like ours, fighting to get to the highest level of college football and because of this, we can no longer afford any flatline seasons…we have to be an 8-win team in our down years and a double-digit winner otherwise. That is all that matters now.
What we saw in the bowl game, IMO, is evidence that Ruff and is his staff, if nothing else, have truly been developing talent and depth at ECU. If you consider the fact that injuries and disciplinary actions decimated the receiving corps, injuries hit the OL, and the defense weathered injuries at linebacker, disciplinary action on the defensive line, and cycled in a ton of youngsters and yet, this team found a way to win 10 games…it says something for the building that Ruff continually notes in his press conferences and junket opportunities.
For this team, which will see not only 21 seniors graduate, but also, among them, some names that have truly become the faces for the program’s rise back to championship level play. It is going to be tough to not hear names like Magazu, Tudor, Thompson, Johnson, Dobson, Woullard, Holmes, Armstrong, and Pegues in 2014. It will be weird not hearing Cooooop or Simmons, ElSawi, Davis, Wiggins, Pasut, and Ray on the offensive side of the ball. It will be odd not having Tignor back there booming kicks and pinning them inside the 20, consistently without error.
Yet, at the same time, it seems like this may be the first time that I can remember an ECU program poised to move forward from a big season in position to repeat the feat even in a tougher league. Yes, there is work to be done – specifically thinking about the secondary and the offensive line. But the bowl game was evidence that this year’s team (and coaches) have a true eye to the AAC. Depth runs aplenty in the program and there is talent….oooooh yes…gobs of it in the coffers.
Consider that even with the number of seniors – those names above – from an overall talent perspective…things don’t look to bad. Hey…let’s take a quick look, position by position and think through what returns shall we? A fair, unbiased cut at it?
Let’s start on O…
Quarterback – High Risk, but such High Rewa
rd: There is no way around the fact that if Shane Carden played at a branded school or just down the interstate a bit, he would be in the Heisman mix right out of the gate next season. I truly hope that even if it is meager, that our higher-ups push that some going into 2014 season. He deserves that and truly has delivered in the spirit of that award. I am sure that Lincoln Riley will have Shane working on the vertical game non-stop between now and spring and if Carden can add that to the rest of his bag of tricks…he will be a guy who has a legitimate chance of playing on Sundays. He has already proven that he can win games with the team on his back and will only get better. Of course, the biggest concern at QB is the one we had all season, really. I believe the heir apparent to Carden is Kurt Benkert. If you have followed me, you know that this has been my thought since he came into the program. No slight to Cody Keith, but Benkert is a similar prospect to Carden and has all the tools and will be ready when his time comes. Unfortunately, he still has to acclimate to game conditions so it would be much better if he – or whomever is to be the next starter – got some clean up reps in 2014. I think from a football smarts perspective, Benkert is equipped to be pressed into the role, but let’s hope there is a different path. I am pulling for Keith to make it a tough go in spring, but don’t feel as confident in him as I do in the younger prospect. If healthy, we have an elite QB heading into his final season taking up into our inaugural year in the AAC.
Receiver – Our cup truly runneth over: Justin Hardy, the all-time Pirate receiving leader, returns at the slot for his final campaign to lead a deep, talented, and well-distributed group of outstanding receivers. With Hardy, Isaiah Jones, and Bryce Williams inside, and Cam Worthy and Davon Grayson outside, the core of the corps is nothing short of stellar. Throw in DaQuan Barnes on the outside and the unit is deep. With the addition (or re-addition, that is) of Danny Webster and Jimmy Williams inside and Jabril Solomon on the outside…wow…simply wow! We have the weapons to really hose up a defense, particularly if we can solidify the deep passing game.
Running back – Glimpses of greatness: We will miss Vintavious Cooper, no doubt. However, Breon Allen has already shown us that he has the goods to be a big-time threat in the same mold as Cooper, with a little more juice in the tank, albeit with a little less power. Allen’s limited action has still been enough for a decent highlight reel and he will be a senior in 2014…so my expectation is more of the same out of the back field. Chris Hairston has shown glimpses of why the coaches like him – straight ahead and powerful, with a nose for the goal line. The wildcard is, IMO, rising sophomore Marquez Grayson. At 6-1 and 200 pound and slasher skills, Grayson brings a different type of animal in the backfield and could be a guy who stirs things up in spring camp. We are solid, if not above average at RB heading into 2014.
Offensive Line – Serendipity in the form of injury: In retrospect, we may all be feeling a bit better about the offensive line due to a bit of bad luck turned serendipity for the program. When ElSawi was hurt, it forced Tre Robertson into the line-up at right tackle, as a starter. The coaches have said all along that Robertson was in the mold of a Will Simmons, and it showed when he got his chance. As a result – along with upstart C.J. Struyk eventually taking Taylor Hudson’s job at center – the offensive line composition for a good stretch – the home stretch – of the season was three sophomores and two seniors – the guards. Hence, we return three of five “starters” on the offensive line, seeking replacements for the guards, Simmons and Jordan Davis. Add to that the fact that Hudson, who can move easily to guard, and you are looking at returning four OLs with starter experience. Not a bad start for a rebuild and provides solid continuity for the offensive skill players. Drew Gentry saw – another guy who has experience at guard – saw action in 13 games, J.T. Boyd in 8, Stewart Hinson in 5, and Chaz Lowery in 5. Throw into the mix, rising RS Frosh Larry Williams – who nearly had his RS lifted simply because he is already ready – and the Pirates have a ton to work with up front. Maybe not as big a drop-off as expected.
Flipping over to defense, let’s start with saying that numbers graduating don’t tell the whole story.
Defensive line: Another year older and better: Losing Lee Pegues is a tough one, but on the whole, I expect the defensive line to be even tougher, and better in 2014. With Chrishon Rose and Terry Williams both starters at the nose (or split in an even front), the middle is in great shape. Demetri McGill also helps here, having seen plenty of action this season. On the ends, Terrell Stanley – a rising junior – returns and opposite him, Jonathon White was a major player this season in his 13 games (1 start) at the other end. With Fred Presley – a surprise in 2013 – getting action in 11 games and playing some defensive end – we have some depth along with Randall Anderson – another frosh who the coaches nearly played this year already. And, a healthy Jeton Beavers should also bolster up front. The risk…yes, some young guys need to step up for depth at the ends, but overall, a veteran group with plenty of game experience.
Linebackers: They just keep on coming: When starting linebackers Kyle Tudor and Jeremy Grove went down to injuries this season, the sky appeared to be falling, but before the clouds touched down, we found out that the back-ups were really just starters in different numbers – and actually – brought some different skills to the position, starting with speed. Brandon Williams and Zeek Bigger were simply fantastic and when Tudor and Grove returned…the inside was simply badass. Well…don’t look now, but Grove, Williams, and Bigger all return in the middle and really are just looking for a fourth guy to step up and make a quartet. Perhaps Jake Geary moves inside and is that guy and if not Geary, look for Davaris Brunson to seize the day…he is a very athletic, big-sticking backer who saw action filling in at fullback some this season. Regardless…the inside is likely to be better than last season. On the outside…we take a hit losing all-everything backer Derrell Johnson – probably to the NFL and quietly effective Gabe Woullard. However…Montese Overton will now get to run the position full-time and he is probably one of the top NFL prospects on this team. Opposite of Overton may be a very experienced Maurice Falls (hopefully full strength), giving the Pirates two experienced guys on the outside. But there is more. Dayon Pratt played well in limited action and Reese Speight saw a bit of game action as well. Without a doubt, the outside is where the questions are, but even with that, there is some very serious starter-type talent there in Overton and Falls and some great rising talent behind them.
Secondary: Same old song and dance: Well, heading into this season, we really had a similar problem in as much as the secondary was weak and devoid of much in the way of proven starters, sans Damon Magazu at safety. This will be the unit that must find stars from guys with limited experience. Departing corner Adonis Armstrong proved to be a very serious corner in 2013 so DC Rick Smith has his work cut out for him, having to replace 3 starters in the back end. But, let’s take a look at what is back. Detric Allen comes back as a starter at one corner and the other corner position will be a battle between two experienced back-ups in Josh Hawkins – who has some starts in his past – and Dashaun Amos who saw action in 13 games in 2013. Lamar Ivey, who saw action at corner in 2013 may need to move back to safety to sure up the wide open positions there. Ivey was a safety for the 2012 season and can do the job. Back out to corner, the kid I have been most excited about is DaShawn Benton. If you don’t know who he is, re-watch game films…his RS was lifted and he was stellar on special teams. He is a cocky, talented corner who comes in a big body at 6-0, 175 pounds with speed and agility. He is going to be a good one…hopefully sooner than later. The other safety job may be manned by Domonique Lennon who saw action in 11 games. Also, Rocco Scarfone should be back at full speed in 2014 for either corner or safety duties. This is a position that will require a lot of work for Rick Smith, but in 2013, he was able to shape a secondary that was decent and will do so again in 2014.
Special Teams: A Kicking Dilemma: Special teams is a mixed bag for 2014. In regards to the coverage and return units…should be very solid again. However, we are desperately in need of a punter with the departure of Trent Tignor. Simply put, next year’s punter is likely not even on the roster right now, so the likelihood of a punter anywhere near the abilities of Tignor is pretty remote…circle this position. And Tignor also was the holder, so there is some risk at that very critical job. Place kicking was not a strength this season so even with Warren Harvey back…you have to also circle this as a risky spot in the line-up.
All in all, I would say we are well equipped to move to the AAC next season and be ready to run at the title, even against tougher talent.
That’s my take on the here and now of ECU football.
Congrats to this team, they deserve it