August is Here: Hope runs eternal at ECU, but Reality can come all-too quickly

Note: I have started to mess around a little with video in this post. Not sure of how it will impact how you experience the site or post.

In recent years, August has brought mixed emotions. On the one hand, ECU football is back at it and on the other hand, the real concern that the season will be over by late September.

bowl promise

Gotta love the intensity…but now, everything will be measured on delivery of this promise.

Some say people cannot remember (more precisely re-experience) pain when you think back on an incident and for me, that is largely true. But when it comes to ECU football, August memories seem to conjure up pain or at least the agony of what has been passed off as ECU football over the past couple of seasons.

Hope tends to run eternal in August and why not? The Pirates are undefeated at the moment. The coaches are saying the right things. The players are motivated. Heck, we have even been promised a bowl game. I mean, I want to BELIEVE. I truly do. I am hopeful we will see improvements all around, but my brain is remembering two straight Augusts where hopes were crushed quickly and improvements were not really seen.

But, August conversations are great  to listen to, hearing things like “big turnaround coming for the Pirates,” and “Recruiting has been stellar!” Things like, “we have new coaches” and “These are all of Coach Mo’s guys now.” The list goes on. Fun to hear and feel, but if Coach Mo is going to deliver on his promise, he is going to have to channel Kreskin and X and O the shit out of it!

Still, I hold on to the hopes that miracles can happen and even minor ones like incremental improvements would be nice to experience. And, if you need a bit of pump-up, please read this hopeful piece from the ultimate ECU insider, Stephen Igoe over at Hoist the Colours: 12 Reasons Why.

Please DON’T read what the AAC media thinks will happen.

So with this in mind, I thought I would take a look at the Pirates from a few different angles and riff a little half full/half empty on it.

Today, I will focus on the offense and then follow-up with thoughts on the defensive side of the ball.

A BRAND NEW, SHINY QUARTERBACK FOR 2018

In all honesty, IMO, the position has been a mess since Shane Carden graduated. It just has. No deference to Blake Kemp, Philip Nelson, James Summers, and Gardner Minshew but none of them were stellar…none a “typical ECU QB.” Two of them left the program, one was a last-chance player, and the other a superb athlete but an ECU-typical passing threat? Meh.

In that mess, we also found a way to push away the only star power QB (now an Atlanta Falcon) in the pipeline by not allowing him to maintain his starting designation coming off an injury. Bad recruiting on Coach Ruff’s part and bad player management on Coach Mo’s part. And though Gardner Minshew is vying to be Washington State’s new starter now, here, in this offense, he was forced into a platoon role, which didn’t help our situation. In short, Coach Mo is responsible for our QB problem over the last two seasons.

On the positive front, Coach Mo is clearly working hard to rectify the problem. I agree with Coach Mo when he says our QB room has stabilized. Personally, I think Reid Herring has the potential to be another multi-year, big offense QB at ECU and am looking forward to seeing how he does. I think we see improvement under center even though all statistics point to down years when a new QB starts for a program. I hope whomever of the young guns who takes the position is allowed to hold the position without fear of making a mistake.

On the optimistic side, Herring does a bring a .598 collegiate passing efficiency rating into the season:

herring stats

I know…that is a little unfair, but still pretty cool.

More positively, his one pass was a TD pass to Trevon Brown, perhaps a foreshadow of a lot of link-ups this season. Don’t blink or you will miss his entire ECU passing highlight reel:

 

Why be excited? Because Herring has been preparing for this moment for two years, has gained the respect of his teammates, and has the technical abilities to be successful. And, he seems smart and will know that he needs to play within his skills, protect the football and take what is given to him play-after-play.

He and freshman Holton Ahlers probably have the goods to become another in the line of game-changing Pirate QBs, but not this season. No, that is down the road…think next year and beyond. But, Herring should be motivated to excel to keep Ahlers from taking the job early. And if that is not an incentive, Herring can read this article from Athlon and put their ranking on his shoulder for the season. And, you never know, maybe the other pieces will fall in place and we protect the football and the Pirates pull off a season like UCF did a year ago with a first-time starter.

The Downer? It is rare (yes, UCF bucked that stat a year ago) that a team improves significantly in the W-L column when a new QB enters the line-up. And, when new QBs do have success, it is generally because they are playing behind a veteran, strong offensive line. Herring does not have that luxury.

RUNNERS, RUNNERS EVERYWHERE

Every fall we hear about how we are intent to up the ante in our running game. We hear about how good our young running backs are. But “good running game” is truly as close to being an oxymoron as you can get at ECU over the past few seasons.  This is not deference to the names on the roster all of whom are good running backs.

Instead, I will refer to a recent conversation I had with my older son’s football coach. My son transferred to a highly-regarded Pop Warner team for his 8th grade season rather than play for his middle school. He was his middle school’s top running back a year ago. He was part of a group of three players invited to a team that went to the nationals two years ago. All three of the newbies to the team were running backs on their previous teams.

All three are in new positions this season. My son is now at defensive end and wide recever. When my kid asked his coach why he wasn’t getting a chance to play running back, the answer was emblematic IMO of the running back position in general. He said, “we have 20 kids on this roster who I can hand the ball off to behind our offensive line. Frankly, the skills needed are basic. I need you in positions where your aggressiveness, speed, and strong hands will help us. Those players I don’t have a surplus of.”

Yes, there are special backs like Barry Sanders. But not many. I contend that many of the guys in the NFL Hall of Fame or on College All-America teams are superb athletes who played behind incredible offensive lines. Maybe Emmitt Smith would have produced the same numbers behind Detroit’s offensive line, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

We have a stable full of capable ball carriers. I personally like the thought of a senior with a chip on his shoulder getting a second chance to put his skills to the test over the younger guys…yes, I mean Anthony Scott (and that speed…yikes). But ultimately, if the OL is good, it shouldn’t matter beyond ball protection (I know…Anthony Scott). If the balanced Hussein Howe or the bruising Darius Pinnix is the choice, that’s cool because it really doesn’t matter IMO.

Check out both Pinnix (left) and Howe from 2016 below:

Why be excited? Well, because we have a stable full of capable runners to start with. Moreover, if we have any semblance of a typical passing game, then we should be able to run here and there…get the short first down, pop a gainer on a draw or quick hitter. If we are protecting the football, the running game can be serviceable and that is something to be excited about.

The Downer? There is no indication that our offensive line will be even marginally better. Scrimmages against the remnants of 2017’s worst defense in the country is no indicator that the OL has turned a corner. With a newbie QB in the line-up, focus has most certainly been on protecting the youngster early on so to expect a significant running game boost is really a stretch.

STILL WIDE RECEIVER U?

One thing that cannot be taken away from the Pirates – including under Coach Mo’s watch – is the impressive talent that has come out of the receiver corps year after year. Dwayne Harris, Justin Hardy, Zay Jones, Jimmy Williams, Davon Grayson, Cam Worthy…the list goes way back too and this season, as usual there is another premiere receiver in the ranks in Trevon Brown.

 

He will certainly be pushing for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and will likely be drawing top coverage game-in and game-out. Additionally, there is no reason to believe that the well has dried up after Brown. Though the names may not be as familiar, there is strong talent and Herring should have a bunch of guys to throw to in a game.

It is looking like Terrell Green really could break out in his final season with the Pirates and you also get the sense that if junior Deondre Farrier is consistently targeted, he too will have a break out year.

Farrier’s got some nice highlights himself:

The young guns look and feel no different than the aforementioned did when they were new Pirates. Guys like sophomore Tahj Deans and RS frosh Blake Proehl and SO Mydreon Vines are tracking in the tradition of all the great ones at ECU.

Why be excited? Be excited because this is the one position group that ECU innately does right. The talent is there and if the football is there too, it will again be the strength of the offense. Always fun to watch, ECU is again loaded with receiving talent.

The Downer? Many a slip twixt a cup and a lip as the idiom goes. ECU may not be able to get the ball to them all and that would spell doom. A quick indicator will be how often Brown is targeted. If he is pushing for 100 catches this season, well, that tells you what is happening on the O and the likelihood of another dismal W-L slate is effectively assured. Look, I loved seeing Zay Jones catch the football. But, and he would be the first to hand the all-time receptions title back to Justin Hardy, I would trade watching that for a winning season. I think most ECU fans would too.

O-LINE IDENTITY CRISIS

In reality, everything discussed offensively to this point is moot without a solid to good offensive line. With all of the potential we have at QB and RB, and the talent at WR, none of it matters in terms of Wins and Losses if our OLine is sub-par.

OLine

McGhin and company will need to be a whole level better for ECU to win.

ECU’s offensive line was not good last year and while all-league candidate Garret McGhin and surprise starter John Spellacy bring with them full-time starter experience, the rest of this year’s line will be virtually newbies with a handful of scattered starts on their resumes. The likelihood that a group of inexperienced offensive linemen, playing together regularly for the first time can go out and be dominant is unheard of, unlikely, and simply…ain’t going to happen. If you want to kick the previous staff some, IMO, it is in the area of linemen. Consider that this year’s team has three (3) senior OLs…that’s it. And that is not how you want your line to progress year-over-year.

The Pirates turned the ball over 24 times (average of 2 a game) in 2016 and 21 times in 2017 (highlighted by 16 INTs). So, from OL perspective, we did not protect our passers well and we didn’t run the ball well (3.3 yards per carry and a paltry 107 yards per game in 2017).

Didn’t pass protect well and didn’t blow people out for our backs. What exactly is our offensive line’s identity. I lament the days at of Coach Shank and his Dancing Bears. Quick feet and smart, his OLs were always solid if not very good. They knew who they were and what they were trying to do.

We are a pass to run team…no matter how much balance we want, it needs to come in the context of our overall approach. There is a reason that Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Navy are considered “running teams,” because their schemes require a type of OL and that is what they recruit. As a result, the grind the ball, control the clock and use safe passes to keep defenses honest. It is unclear what our identity is up front and if that does not become clear, well we have already seen the results.

There is a new OL coach in Don Mahoney whose resume demonstrates that he can shape an OL into whatever the system requires – bulldozers or dancing bears. He did the former at Tennessee and the latter at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.

Why be excited? If we trust the process, then despite the fact that we have scant experience beyond McGhin and Spellacy, logic follows that the newbies today are higher talent than the newbies of the past two years. They are Coach Mo’s guys and hence, should be better than those who left. And, there is Coach Mahoney. He certainly has a CV that screams success in terms of OL performance and if Coach Mo has been clear on what the OL identity should be, there is a strong chance that at the very least, they will be trending to being solid if the skillsets allow.

The Downer. No measure of hope can remedy the fact that our OL was simply not very good over the last two seasons. Using McGhin as a measuring stick is not necessarily comforting. He is our best OL without a doubt, but he has also played guard, then center, and now tackle…he has taken one for the team over and again. We have a true freshman vying for a starting job and while now a virtual veteran, Spellacy at center is only one-season removed from being a complete newbie. Coach Mahoney can only scheme and teach so much before relative talent becomes the ultimate determiner of success. It will take a monumental improvement of the group to make our offense reminiscent of those in the past.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY

The Downer.

Two years ago, Zay Jones was basically what made ECU watchable. Last season, while Brown was a great receiver, fans had very little to tune in for. Otherwise, we couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t protect ball, couldn’t sustain drives to at least take time off the board to hold down the scores and we couldn’t score points when it mattered. Weren’t proficient in the red zone and didn’t have a lights out field goal unit. Yes, we were 42nd in Total Offense in 2017 which would have been respectable except for two factors: 1) we were typically getting throttled game in and game out; and 2) because of number 1, the bulk of our 425 yards of offense a game came well after the game was decided and the opponent was making plans for post-game.

Had the defense not been so awful, the offense would have been in the cross-hairs and deservedly so. If nothing else, ECU used to have a handle on offensive football, particularly passing and even in down defensive years, could at least participate competently in a shootout each week.

Gamecock Loss score

The Downward Spiral started in with the loss to USC. Cringy Click Here.

That all comes down, IMO, more on the side of coaching – the Xs and Os of it – then the players – talent and depth. Everything imploded in the program in 2016 down in South Carolina when Coach Mo took a 2-0 team having come off a great win against N.C. State to Williams-Brice. The team fell apart in the 15-20 loss and has to-date not recovered. From that point on, the Pirates have looked unprepared, unmotivated, and ill-equipped to pull out of the nose dive. 2017 was worse given the number of games lost before half-time. From the outside looking it, it seemed that players were not sure of what to do, where to be, and how to execute fundamentally on a consistent basis. Adjustments simply did not happen and messaging from the program was that they look great in practice but not in games and its going to get fixed.

We are still waiting on evidence of this.

Why to be excited.

For one, the QB carousel appears to be slowing down and a succession plan appears emerging. Two, there does appear to be a talent uptick, at least on paper, in Coach Mo’s recruiting classes. Three, the defense can’t possibly get worse (more on that in the next article), and programs do tend to show signs of improvement in the third season of a coach’s tenure (if that coach is going to ultimately succeed).

And finally, Pirates tend to deliver when their backs are squarely against the wall.

 

 

4 Comments

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4 responses to “August is Here: Hope runs eternal at ECU, but Reality can come all-too quickly

  1. Chesapeake Pirate

    I love being undefeated in August also. There are some different reasons for optimism this season, many of which relate to our new defensive coordinator. Even in bad seasons we always find ways to score, it is stopping the other guy where we have struggled or failed. So much of football is inter-related. Until shown otherwise, I am keeping my hopes of for an improved 2018 Pirate football season. We need stability and continuity to improve more than anything. Our recruiting success has been an eye-opener. It’s time to show what we can do.

    • Ahoy old friend! Glad to hear from you. Agree with you point by point. For me, success will be measured incrementally. If the talent coming into the program is legit and STAYS in the program and we see even marginal improvement this season, I will be happy as a fan. But if we look confused and unmotivated again…I will be in the group seeking change.

      Hope you are well!

  2. Greg Jones

    Ron,

    Excellent pre-season analysis are usual. I’m grateful that you are out there still dedicating time to breaking down the prospects of our beloved football team. Your description of how August feels to die hard Pirate fans is dead on. This is my 30th August with this team. I still come in to every season wanting to believe. And this year is no different. The problem is we’ve had too few December’s worth remembering and there’s still only been one January to hang our hat on. It seems like with the talent we’ve had and the passion of the fan base we should have had more than that. This year is particularly scary because if it doesn’t turn, we could be lost in the wilderness for another five easy.

    But. Hope springs eternal. And who knows, maybe we get to a bowl this year. Start building again. I’ll damn sure be rooting for it.

    I think you know Matt passed away this year. The Pirates were a connection that he and I shared for our entire adult life. If there is any validity to the afterlife or cosmic Karma….Matt will be rooting our team on with us. That’s a nice thought no matter what.

    Arrrrrrrggggghhhh!

    • Hi Greg…Robb and I were just speaking about you so I am so glad to hear from you. Yes, I know about Matt and miss him. In fact, when I wrote my last blog post it was my first in a long time and when I published it, Matt came to mind.

      I forever tie ECU football to him as we spent many nights and interactions on it. My last game at ECU was with Matt (the UNC blowout win).

      Please keep in touch (here) or elsewhere…and I hope you are well.

      As for our Pirates…I am hopeful but am prepared for what is likely. Best to you Greg.

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