The state of the ECU offensive line is truly a case for the glass half full/half empty conundrum. On the one hand, the starting five are experienced starters coming off a season where the O generated just shy of 7,000 yards of total offense. Stellar. On the other hand, there is a veritable cliff after the first six lineman in regards to quality depth. There has been some attrition (e.g., injuries) and there has been some guys who simply have not emerged as starter quality in their time on the team. And largely, the depth is unproven young guys who will now have to be ready should one of the starting five be lost to injury. The O Line could be incredible this season, but with a twist here or there, could be a huge liability. With a small signing class this year, the staff really would do well to mine the JUCO ranks again for a quality tackle and interior lineman (maybe one who can play center/guard).
While all the press surrounded the loss of ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma, quietly the Pirates also lost OL coach Brandon Jones to California. While Jones did a great job, he is replaceable, but who that coach will be is still a mystery as the Pirates have not pulled the trigger – nor frankly, have they even hinted as to who the serious candidates are. My wish is for a veteran OL coach to join the staff so that there can be some real advancement of the younger players in preparation for next year (2016-17) because the coffers are not exactly stocked with sure bets on the OL. That said, whomever gets the nod, must be able to coach lineman in this system, which may take some specialized experience. With the stable of RBs the Pirates have assembled, however, it would be nice if the new OL coach has experience in building linemen who can also buckle up the chinstrap and slob knocker the opponent now and then, particularly in the red zone. Hopefully Coach Ruff has already zeroed in on a few names and we will be hearing about it soon.
Back drop: The ECU offensive line of 2014-15 was stellar, not only protecting Shane Carden to the tune of 4,700+ passing yards, but also paving the way to more than 2,000 yards on the ground, including a 161 rushing yards per game average and an overall 4.8 yards per carry average across the backs. And, the running game produced 28 TDs on the ground, despite the criticism that our O Line isn’t capable of run blocking. Overall, the unit which returns largely intact rewrote the ECU record books for total offense generated with 6,929 yards of Total O per game (533 yards per game) and a total of 59 TDs produced. Consider also, the Pirates did this on a schedule that included the four of the top 25 defenses in the country: Central Florida (5th), Florida (15th), Virginia Tech (21st), and Temple (24th) so any notion that the ECU offense didn’t face any tests – specifically that this O Line didn’t face any talented defensive fronts is simply denying what actually occurred in the trenches last season. Four starters return in 2015-16 and the man expected to takeover from the only starter who has graduated (center Taylor Hudson) is a former starter at center. So, the Pirates enter the season with the entire starting offensive line plus its number one reserve, who has experience at both guard positions and at right tackle. If this group stays healthy, they will give an incredible comfort to the new QB and should be able to produce plenty of offensive opportunities.
So with that backdrop in place, let’s take a look at the roster for the trenchmen heading into the spring:
The Usual Suspects up front:
- Left Tackle: Ike Harris (RS-SR): Heralded as the most likely of the OLs to be drafted in the 2016 draft, Harris has been a stalwart at the Left Tackle position since he ascended to the starting role in his RS-SO season (2013) and since has piled up 26 starts heading into his final campaign. The 6-7, 305 pounder has the tools and experience to handle the best of the best back-side rushers in the game. Harris was an All-American Conference 2nd Team selection in 2013 and will be a candidate for 1st Team honors this season.
Left Guard: Quincy McKinney (TR-SR): The 6-4, 311 McKinney started all games in 2014-15 at his position and was dominant throughout the season. Very much a vicious inside blocker who also possesses the ability to handle DTs one-on-one, he was a huge impact player coming in from the JUCO ranks – probably one of the best performers in recent history as a JUCO OL transfer for the Pirates. Though he was overlooked for All-American Conference honors as a junior, he will be all over the all-league honors radar in his final campaign. Another solid starter here.
- Center: C.J. Struyk (SR): Though the 6-2, 296 pounder saw his reps diminish some in 2014-15 it was less because of his abilities to play the position and more because former starter Taylor Hudson – an all-AAC 1st team selection – elevated his game to a new level earning the edge over the very capable Struyk. The good news for ECU is that Struyk is a guy who has logged 12 starts already (in 2013) and knows the demands of the position. While he may need to knock off the rust – having seen action in just 4 games in 2015-16, he gives the Pirates a solid base from which the competition for the position can launch in the spring. In other words, if another player beats him out for the starting job, the Pirates will have one hell of a starting center.
Right Guard: J.T. Boyd (RS-JR): Boyd is an example of what we all hope is brewing in the ECU system. Having saw limited action in 8 games in 2013, the burly 6-4, 302 pound guard came onto the scene this year and grabbed the right guard position and did not let go. He started 11 of the 13 games in 2014-15 and did so in a strong manner. He now heads into his junior campaign experienced and ready. Noteworthy is the fact that he was able to edge out top reserve Tre Robertson for a full-time, starting gig, which is less a knock on Robertson and more a tribute to Boyd’s development. Hopefully, Boyd stands as a symbol of what the Pirates have brewing in the ranks below the starting five.
- Right Tackle: Dontae Levingston (TR-SR): Like his JUCO comrade McKinney at the guard position, Levingston came in to the program from a JUCO and grabbed the right
tackle spot. It was somewhat expected, given his prowess in the JUCO ranks – considered a Top-25 prospect in Junior College ranks – but with ECU’s history of JUCO linemen washing out, Levingston’s quick study to starter was a great boost to the OL in 2014. Having proved he can play at this level, he is now a full-on starter heading into his final campaign, logging 10 starts in 2014-15. Another year with Coach Connors, and Levingston’s ceiling could raise quite a bit.
- Tre Robertson (RS-SR): Robertson is without equal, the Pirates top reserve. He drew 6 starts in 2013 – all at right tackle but then coming into the 2014-15 season, his versatility lead to a change of roles in the offense. Listed as top reserve at right tackle, right guard, and left guard, Robertson – at 6-5, 310 pounds – provides the Pirates starter quality. Last season, he drew no shortage of game reps, but he saw those reps distributed across three positions, giving ECU the luxury now to move him around and cover for injuries at 3 positions without worrying about a drop off in efficiency. Robertson is considered starter value with starter impact.
Stewart Hinson (RS-SR): Once considered a project in a massive 6-7, 296 pound body, Hinson finally saw significant action in 2014-15 as the primary back-up for Ike Harris at left tackle. Always considered a smart lineman, the off-season a year ago finally saw his strength numbers start to catch up with his size and football IQ. Another off-season at Camp Connors is just what Hinson needs to prepare himself for the type of season he needs to have his senior season. Keep in mind, he also has experience and the skills to play guard if needed, so his versatility is also important. The big question for Hinson is if it took this long to break out, can everyone count on a better than solid final campaign? It appears he is ready to provide quality depth for the Pirates at a critical spot on the line.
- Will Foxx (RS-SR): Fox – a 6-2, 313 pounder – came to ECU as a nose tackle, but his aggressiveness and agility led him to the offensive line where in 2014-15, he saw action in 8 games, primarily as a back-up for McKinney at left guard. Foxx is still developing as an offensive lineman, so getting game action was a huge step forward for him. It remains o be seen if Foxx can mature into a high quality reserve at the left guard position, freeing Robertson up to focus specifically on right side duties.
- Brandon Smith (RS-SO): Smith, an impressive looking 6-8, 336 pounder started the season off impressively in 2014-15, getting action in the first five games as primary back-up at right tackle for Dontae Levingston. Off season training is a big need for Smith who has the tools but must continue to develop.
- Larry Williams (RS-SO): Williams, a 6-4, 330 pounder, was projected to be the starting left guard before the dominance by McKinney at that position became apparent. Nevertheless, he saw action in 13 games this year which bodes well for the Pirates who have been very excited about Williams since he arrived. A quality depth guy at guard, Williams will certainly see his reps increase in 2015-16, particularly after another year in Camp Connors.
- Other OLs on the roster: Des Barmore (RS-FR) – a big body at 6-6, 285 pounds – who will benefit from another year in the weightroom as he works to find a home at one of the tackle positions; Kyle Erickson (RS-FR) – a student of former star guard Brian Rimpf, the 6-4, 286 pounder is reported to have that needed mean streak to play on the interior for the Pirates; Eric Lenzen (RS-FR) – It is hoped that he will battle for the center position or at the very least, provide ample back-up for Struyk. At 6-5, 265 pounds he has the frame and hopefully will bulk up in the offseason; Christian Matau (RS-SO) – Injuries have hampered his career at ECU, but a healthy Matua – 6-3, 315 pounds – would be a very good piece of quality depth, having skills to play at center or guard. It is all speculation, however, considering that he has been sidelined most of his time at ECU; Garrett McGhin (RS-FR) – a massive 6-6, 310 pound tackle who will look to cut his teeth this season; Messiah Rice (RS-FR) – an athletic tackle prospect a 6-5, 265 who will have to grow more into that frame. He is talented, but will need the most from Camp Connors to start to see more reps at one of the tackle spots; Bladen Gatling (TR-JR) – Transferred into the program last year from Elizabeth City State University where he played right tackle. He is 6-2, 323 pounds and has some quickness. How he adapts to the speed and strength of top level football will spell his future with the Pirates.
Early Call: The Pirates appear to be about 8 deep in the offensive line which is plenty given past experience. The starting five is solid going across from left to right: Harris, McKinney, Struyk, Boyd, Levingston. Primary back-ups will be Robertson, Williams, and Hinson. If that group can stay healthy, then the new QB and that stable of RBs should thrive in 2015-16. Beyond that group, the future depends on emergence of guys like Barmore, Lenzen, Erickson, Foxx, and Rice. It would serve the Pirates well if they could land a JUCO tackle and a guard this time around – if there are any out there like McKinney and Levingston were – being game ready from the jump.
NEXT POST: Flipping over to defense in the next post, focusing on the defensive line, where there were some big departures but there is also possibilities of some big returns. Defense will be the focus of the next several posts.