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ECU football: Arrr state to arrr nation?

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  • If ECU can play up to potential, big prize awaits
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    Getting to know AAC

    Cincinnati was picked to win the American Athletic Conference. Here are some names to know (in order of preseason ranking, omitting ECU, which was voted No. 4):

    1. Cincinnati

    QB Gunner Kiel: The Notre Dame transfer has not participated in a game in more than 1,000 days but has become the buzz of the AAC. A 6-foot-4, 208-pound sophomore, he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. He is expected to lead a potentially potent offensive attack that features dangerous wideouts Shaq Washington, Chris Moore and Mekale McKay.

    2. Central Florida

    Middle linebacker Terrance Plummer: Much attention has been paid to the Knights’ offseason losses, most notably QB Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson. However, Plummer returns. He had 110 stops and was named defensive most outstanding player of the Fiesta Bowl. Plummer, 6-1, 241, was also an All-AAC first-team selection.

    3. Houston

    QB John O’Korn: As a freshman, the 6-4, 205-pound O’Korn replaced injured QB David Piland in Week 3 and never looked back. O’Korn threw for 3,117 yards and 28 TDs to lead Houston to an 8-5 (5-3) record and a bowl appearance en route to being named the AAC Rookie of the Year.

    5. Southern Methodist

    Wide receiver Darius Joseph: The offense took a hit as it graduated its starting QB, RB and two 1,000-yard receivers, but Joseph could help it get over the hump. As a sophomore, his 8.6 receptions per game were sixth-most in the country. Joseph finished with 108 catches for 808 yards and five scores.

    6. South Florida

    Kicker Marvin Kloss: Last year the Bulls scored the fewest offensive touchdowns in the nation (11) and could struggle again under sophomore QB Matt White. All of which magnifies Kloss’ role. In 2013, he made 11 field goals of 40 yards or longer, best in the FBS, and was a finalist for the Lou Groza award.

    7. Memphis

    Defensive end Martin Ifedi: As a junior, Ifedi was a key cog in a defense that ranked 12th nationally against the run (116.3 ypg) and 39th in total defense (370.7 ypg). A 6-3, 265-pounder, he was a disruptive force in the 3-4 defense and an AAC first-team selection with 11.5 sacks, which ranked seventh nationally in sacks per game (.96).

    8. Temple

    QB P.J. Walker: The Owls looked sleepy last year as they finished 2-10 (1-7) to place last in the AAC. However, the play of Walker late in the season should give cause for optimism in 2014. He started the final seven games and set freshman records for passing yards (2,084) and TD passes (20). A 6-1, 200-pound sophomore, he also rushed for 332 yards and three touchdowns.

    T9. Tulane

    Cornerback Lorenzo Doss: The Green Wave defense was the backbone of the team in its final season in Conference USA and Doss was a big part of that. At 5-11, 187 pounds, he had a stellar sophomore season, leadingTulane in interceptions (seven) while ranking 22nd in passes defensed per game. His efforts enable him to become an All-C-USA first-team selection and earn second-team All-America status from Sports Illustrated and The Walter Camp Foundation

    T9. UConn

    WR Geremy Davis: The Huskies featured three QBs who started four games last season. However, there’s no doubt that 6-3, 216-pound senior Davis will be the top target for whoever takes the helm. In 2013, he became the first UConn receiver to crack the 1,000-yard mark since the school jumped up to Division I status, pulling in 71 catches for 1,085 yards.

    11. Tulsa

    Strong safety Michael Mudoh: The Hurricane will begin its first season in the AAC with plenty of questions, but the secondary should not be one: all four starters return, led by Mudoh. A dynamic strong safety, he led Conference USA and ranked fourth in the nation with 133 tackles to garner an All-C-USA second-team designation.

GREENVILLE The high-flying Shane Carden era didn’t exactly soar from the start. In fact, it struggled to get off the ground. But as East Carolina embarks on the 2014 season, Carden just might be the guy to lead the Pirates to unprecedented heights.

After losing a closely contested preseason quarterback competition to Rio Johnson in the 2012 fall camp, Carden, then a redshirt sophomore, saw his first game action at the start of the third quarter during ECU’s Week 2 battle against No. 9 South Carolina and future No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.

Carden’s first career pass didn’t exactly hint of the guy who would rewrite the Pirates record book.

“I was excited. I came running out of the tunnel real excited and then went out there and forced things because I was trying to make too much happen and I threw a pick,” Carden said. “I got pulled after that and I was sitting there thinking that might be my only pass this season. I was like, ‘This can’t really happen this way,’ honestly.”

Luckily for the Pirates, it didn’t. After Johnson threw an interception, Carden replaced him again and finished 12-of-18 for 140 yards with one touchdown and one interception during ECU’s 48-10 loss.

Not great, but good enough to earn his first career start against longtime Conference USA rival Southern Mississippi. While making a quarterback change can be a drama-filled affair, it wasn’t for ECU.

“It took about 10 seconds,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of his conversation with coach Ruffin McNeill about the decision to start Carden, who led the Pirates to a 24-14 victory over the Golden Eagles.

“What he did at Southern Miss was really impressive. We played poorly offensively, but he had a good feel for, ‘We’re not that great offensively right now. We’re on the road. We’re playing great defensively.’

“We were up most of the game, but he made just enough plays that we could win. He was really smart about it.”

Carden started the next 24 games, breaking several of ECU’s major passing records along the way. During that time he transformed from a game manager to a game breaker who has the Pirates on the brink of a breakout season.

Last year ECU (10-3, 6-2) had its second double-digit win total in the school’s 82-year history, and won a bowl for the first time since 2007.

Carden, the Conference USA Most Valuable Player, was magnificent. He threw for a school-record 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns, completing 70.5 percent of his passes, second-best in the nation.

With the aid of sure-handed wideout Justin Hardy, who grabbed a season record 114 passes for an ECU-best 1,284 yards and eight TDs, the Pirates’ Air Raid offense racked up 40.2 points per game, the eighth-highest total in the country.

Always in the shadows of its ACC neighbors to the west, East Carolina enters this season in prime position to steal the spotlight. During the offseason, the Pirates completed their move to the American Athletic Conference, whose seven-year, $126 million deal with ESPN assures the program increased exposure.

The timing couldn’t be better.

East Carolina will enter the AAC with a record-setting quarterback-wide receiver combo, an athletic defense, a nonconference schedule with headline-grabbing potential and no clear-cut favorite to win the conference.

That combination has the Pirates standing at the doorstep of a great opportunity, one Hardy saw coming two seasons ago, when they put the ball in Carden’s hands.

“I could,” he said. “I could (see it). Everybody has been buying into what the coaching staff has been talking about, and that’s 11-man football and being one heartbeat. I always told Shane … his chance is coming and when that chance comes, you got to make the most of it. I always knew.”

The only question is whether ECU can walk through the door.

“Absolutely it can. I have a ton of confidence in this team,” Carden said. “… This team has a very good offense, and with guys like (linebackers) Zeek (Bigger), B-Will (Brandon Williams) and Maurice Falls leading the defense, we’re going to be a good team this year.”

If the season goes as Carden hopes, by January the national media could be speaking about ECU in the same manner as Central Florida last season or Boise State in years past. However, McNeill refuses to indulge.

When asked if he catches himself thinking about what could be, McNeill, the Pirates’ fifth-year coach, said, “No. I really don’t. I think about things like how I can get ready for the team meeting tonight.”

Riley, the newly anointed assistant coach, took it a step further.

“It probably goes through your head, but the way this business is now, if you look ahead, they’ll fire your butt,” he said.

The players can’t resist the temptation.

“We talk about it all the time,” Carden said. “Last year our goal was to win the conference and we didn’t do that. We came up short. It was a successful season, but everyone felt we left something hanging. But we talk about it at our meetings. We want to go to a conference championship. That’s our goal.”

The Pirates will open Saturday night against N. C. Central. After that, ECU will travel to No. 9 South Carolina and Virginia Tech before returning home to host No. 23 North Carolina.

To some, the clashes with SEC and ACC opponents offer ECU an opportunity to show it belongs in the same class as Power 5 programs. McNeill and the Pirates feel they already are.

“They talk about the power this, but I’ve never thought of us and our program here as not having power players, a power staff, a power university, a power fan base or a power anything,” McNeill said. “I’ve always thought that way. People are trying to label this group as this, but they’ve never asked me that. I’ve never thought of my guys and our guys as nothing but power.”

“I’m looking forward to showing the country and exposing the country to not just East Carolina, but Eastern North Carolina and what we have here.”

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