One thing that stood out this year starting in spring of 2013 was that the Pirate football team dedicated itself to starting fast always. And, they did so with precision, seemingly scoring on nearly every first drive of the year (I know, not every, but seemingly).
Such is my feelings going into the AAC in 2014. I think we start fast, meaning we are upper echelon ready for the competition that lies ahead. Are there some concerns? Absolutely. For example, the UCF horse is clearly out of the barn. They have taken a step ahead of us, IMO, talent-wise, but there was little we could do to stop that. They are in the heart of talent-rich Florida and have no desire to recruit academic standouts. They are rich, and they put winning ahead of all. But, we can play with them year-in and year-0ut and they truly are our competition, along with Tulsa, Houston, and perhaps South Florida going forward.
Looking at what we have coming back roster-wise, it really all comes down to how you see things in general – are you a half-full or half-empty person. I saw Phil Steele’s breakdown of returning starters (see here) and it could look bleak if you are a half-filled kinda person. But like anything, unless you dive a little deeper into things, you can’t really know what the Pirates will bring into the season next year.
For example, Phil (and I like him and his work) points out that we have 4 starters back on defense. But, by my count, we have 6, which is a whole different perspective. Bear with me. I get that starting designation goes back to beginning of the season but a closer look reveals a lot. Starting with the defensive line, we have 3 starters back, really: DE-Terrell Stanley, NT-Terry Williams, DE-Chrishon Rose. We DO lose a great one in Lee Pegues, but save the Williams suspension, Rose may have seen more time at end then NT. By my count: 3 DL starters back with Jon White at near starter quality. Moving to linebacker, I guess we “lost” 3 starters, but again…kind of a misnomer. We lost 3 starters but also return 3 starters by that type of math. While Derrell Johnson, Gabe Woullard, and Kyle Tudor are all fantastic starters lost, we return Jeremy Grove, Brandon Williams, and Zeek Bigger inside – all Starters. So instead of losing 3 starters, we lose 2 net, returning our ILB starters. Outside, we do lose two starters, but IMO, Montese Overton will be an equal or upgrade at one OLB spot and be the sack-master that Johnson was for the team this year. Perhaps a healthy Maurice Falls will be sufficient at the other OLB spot.
Now, at DB, we definitely lose 3 starters without debate in Adonis Armstrong, Damon Magazu, and Chip Thompson and return one (1) starter in corner Detric Allen. HOWEVER, we have another corner in the ranks who has 7 starts on the books in Josh Hawkins – though we cannot count him as a starter I guess. So when I add up things: 3 DL, 2 LB, 1 DB = 6.
Let’s bounce over to the Offense where Phil indicates we return 5 starters. Again, it is about the math. By my count, we return 7 starters, not 5. Follow my math: Shane Carden at QB. On the offensive line, we return center C.J. Struyk and tackles Tre Robertson and Ike Harris, and at receiver we return 3 starters in Justin Hardy, Isaiah Jones, and Davon Grayson. 1+3+3 = 7 not 5. So overall, using the same ratings table, the Pirates return 14 overall starters which would rate them more like 48th in returning starters. And, Taylor Hudson has been a starter and could move over to guard, but not counting him here as a returning starter.
On top of that, when you look at the returning talent, it also includes one of the top producing QBs in the nation and one of the top producing WRs in the nation. Further we have 60% of the sack production (read: pressure) returning from the nation’s 14th best QB pressuring defense (which I think Overton with even more snaps will serve as a good offset for loss of Johnson and his 8 sacks).
Now, no doubt we need to find two guards and fast. We need depth at DL and OLB. We need two safeties to surface as well. But all teams have to fill holes. The question is are the rising guys getting a lot of reps? Are they decent? Do they have greater upside? I think the offense will hum along even if we take a step backwards in the running game. I worry more about the defensive secondary, but I think Rick Smith will motivate a few guys to new levels of play. Special teams…we are going suffer there trying to find a punter with anything like what we had with Trent Tignor is going to be tough and our PK situation is not solid, and this year we may need it more than we have in the past.
Across the league, UCF losing QB Blake Bortles and RB Storm Johnson helps us but they will be tough, and a physical team up front, so they will still be in the running. Louisville goes away and then what is left? Not a lot to fear. Sure there are teams that can beat us, but likewise, not a team there that we should consider a loss under any scenario.
I think we also have all of the intangibles, starting with leadership, despite losing some real leaders to graduation. What more can a team ask for then to have its QB – who has been a leader all year – back to lead as a senior? Hardy – who leads by example. Jeremy Grove, another leader. And, this is a team that really is a family…if you haven’t had a chance, you have to check out the university’s latest video (see here)…you can see how intense these kids feel a part of this group and that is some power stuff there as it translates to the field.
Not saying we are going sweep to 10-11 wins again, but, unlike, well, any year, heading into 2014 it seems possible to expect another double-digit season, despite the move to the AAC. This team established itself, at least statistically, among the greatest in the program’s history and a great core returns. They really only know winning now and with several players who have a legitimate shot at the NFL, there is a lot on the line for the leaders and stars on this club. My expectations? AAC title or bust!
Signing day is upon us. Spring ball right behind. Looking forward to Pirate baseball. Pulling for the hoops team to find a way into the mix…it is all exciting, but football season is already here for this Pirate fan and with it, another chance for the Pirates to start fast.