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.
Cincy has to be considered upper tier in the AAC. I could see ECU winning only 7 games or doing a game or two better. I don’t see ten regular season wins. Lots to build on but lots of question marks. The OG situation and secondary are scary. Center is too as we don’t have anyone there who can’t be and hasn’t been pushed around. I’ll go with 2-2 OOC and somewhere between 6-2 and 5-3 AAC for seven to eight wins. I could just as easily see 1-3 OOC and who knows AAC so a lower number of wins. Beating either Tech or dUNCe is critical to a break out season. And being relatively healthy after the OOC schedule. Kicking too as you point out.
Farg…I forgot about Cincy factoid! I guess I never really accepted their climb after CUSA.
I couldn’t agree more on the analysis of criticality of the games against Virginia Tech and the cheaters.
Ron.. any updates on Lucas Thompson. He would be a big add in the secondary.. should I just forget about him?
Hi Chris…hope all is well.
I have not heard anything in terms of him really getting it together. I would not expect to see him ever arriving here. Hopefully he gets his life together and carves out a future.
Never say never, but not likely.
BTW, remember Chevelle Buie…another highly-rated recruit who committed to ECU…well, he finally got himself playing football again – at Fort Scott (http://www.fsgreyhounds.com/sports/fball/2013-14/players/chevellebuieynfm). Not sure if ECU is still talking to him, but at least it seems he is on the right path.
Cheers and go Pirates!
Good article. I think you could also consider the receivers who will or could return. Grayson and Smith should be pretty certain. Webster and Solomon may be possibilities.
Would love to have Danny and Jabril back in the mix.
Webster has been reinstated. Staff is not counting on Soloman returning I don’t believe as his academics remain very iffy. You didn’t mention him but Quataye Smyre is no longer in school.
One of our veteran LB is not returning as well due to his ongoing series of injuries from what I have been told. The latest injury has not been made public I don’t think. Rosters are constantly in a state of flux this time of year. Good news is that no one flunked out from the fall to my knowledge.
Yeah, I had heard about Quataye. I had not heard on Jabril though. I hope he gets it together and back to ECU if for nothing else but school. He seems to love the Pirates and I like that.
I had also heard about our LB…I have been meaning to connect with his father to see how he is doing, but have not yet made that call.
I still think we will be fine at LB but losing top talent hurts.
Hope you are right about academics…always a crapshoot. I do like that we have – I think – four early enrollees..that is very helpful in getting them on the field sooner than later.
This team has a rare combination of talent and intangibles. They have learned how to win. The coaching staff at ECU has shown the most consistent improvement of any in the country and I see that as the biggest key to our success in 2014. They will have our guys on the same page all of the time. Execution wins games. That should be our strong point.
3-1 OOC. We will win the conference. UCF will not be the same team without Bortles.
Love how you think ecpyr8…3-1 sounds great OOC.
Ron nice read as always. Last I checked Storm Davis was a pitcher for the Orioles not a running back for the dreaded Knights LOL. That being said in an attempt to get my mind off the freezing weather I made my hotel reservations today for the Keith LeClair Classic. Personally I’m not worried about what we have next season with the exception of the DBs and O line.
The one constant in the college game is that you can’t win without an experienced talented QB and we have one. My main concern and I think it is a serious issue is our inability to recruit. There is no question that the talent pool is as deep as it has ever been but what are we doing to get our share? We deal with the cliches about a new league, about soundly beating both State and UNC not to mention the scandal they are involved in. All of these positives were supposed to make a difference in recruiting yet there is not one shred of evidence where that has happened.
Make no mistake I fully support our coaches and having a Pirate lifer at the top will always be the key to our future. If You look around the state the coach with the most tenure is Ruff. ECU is coming off a 10 win season and a new conference to boot, strong selling points yet it made no difference. We were in the running for 6 players against a 3-9, 0-8 State team and a coach who has yet to spend a season on the road recruiting yet he got every player and we got zero including the best player out of Greenville and another 4 out of my area. UNC despite their issues always get who they want.
While I don’t believe the star system projects future stars it is a measure of physical ability to play today, size, speed, and strength. If you look at who is recruiting our kids its programs like ODU, Charlotte, App State, and other D2 schools. We have a great staff to develop these kids but you can’t build a program based upon 100% projects. The idea that we have sent several QBS to the league and have flourished at the college level, The idea that we have produced several all pro RB’s yet here we sit inside 2 weeks before signing day with nothing at those positions while other programs have signed multiple kids with slim chances of ever seeing the field. To make matters worse we offer a kid with no offers a week ago to play QB and he says I’m not interested in ECU. We have openings to walk in and play at OL and DBS yet where are the Jucos or transfers?
Bottom line we have seen this act before what we have signed will flip and how many wont qualify to even get in. Like I said Im not worried that much about this year but the future I’m not seeing it based upon the fact that we can’t get kids who want to play here as if were UAB. There seems to be something missing big time here weather its budget or a poor plan. With the addition of ODU and Charlotte its only going to get tougher to pull kids out of NC. You need talent and depth to compete I don’t know how you can make that happen when you get shut out at key positions. I dont want to be negative here that’s not my point but what needs to change to allow us to get better talent to compete against a tougher schedule because in the end talent wins out.
Got me on Storm…thanks! Had to correct that one quickly.
On the recruiting front…it is such a tough gig to recruit for ECU given how unfair the playing field is for us in this state. Too many D1 schools. ACC schools getting the big budgets – and now we learn that cheating has helped UNC keep getting players. Kids want to go to the highest profile team they can.
I think that all the items you list will pay off subtly over the next couple of years, but you are right about the fact that we keep losing kids to bigger branded schools. Not sure how to flip that other than to: 1) cheat (which I do not see as an option); 2) raise ECU’s profile via a-yet-to-be-determined out of the box marketing campaign; 3) Come into big, huge money (not likely); or 4) somehow get out and find the top talent kids that are open to being pioneers rather than wagon-jumpers. That last one would be the mojo if we could figure out what Chris Petersen did at Boise State to bring in the talent…though it was different for him because there is not as much D1 congestion geographically for him.
You are right about talent though.
I will say that I do see some good finds in this staff’s recruiting. For example: guys like Terrell Stanley, Chrishon Rose, Zeek Bigger, and Montese Overton are serious upgrades – in my opinion to previous guys. They are on the field as sophomore playing pretty damn good football. I think that Overton will be a superior player than Johnson was, Bigger will finish among the ones we talk about at ECU, and Rose and Stanley will get NFL looks. On the other side, I really do believe that Bankert will win the job to fill the vacated position after we lose Shane Carden and look at our two true freshmen receivers in Davon Grayson and Isaiah Jones…talented, talented kids. For what it is worth, I also think that DaShawn Benton (DB) and Demetri McGill (DL) are two quick breakout guys for next season on D.
Will we get the 4-star kid out of high school…not sure that is ever going to happen because it is about a business decision for those kids…not school, passion, or comfort. We simply don’t bankroll well enough for those types. IMO.
Cheers DCP…always, always great hearing from you!