Football

ECU football ‘Air Raid’ searching for best commander

East Carolina linebacker Zeek Bigger (44) celebrates after stopping North Carolina's Romar Morris (21) during the first half of UNC's game against East Carolina at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014.
East Carolina linebacker Zeek Bigger (44) celebrates after stopping North Carolina's Romar Morris (21) during the first half of UNC's game against East Carolina at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014. ehyman@newsobserver.com

If Ruffin McNeill learned anything in 10 seasons at Texas Tech, it’s that quarterbacks, even ones as good as Shane Carden, can be replaced.

That doesn’t diminish what Carden did for East Carolina, essentially setting every school passing record in his three seasons, or McNeill’s appreciation for Carden’s leadership; it’s just a reality of the “Air Raid” offense.

“This offense attracts good quarterbacks,” McNeill said in an interview this week.

It certainly did at Texas Tech, where McNeill worked under spread-offense guru Mike Leach from 2000 until 2009, and the pattern has continued at ECU, where McNeill enters his sixth season at his alma mater.

Texas Tech produced seven different 3,000-yard passers – and three different 5,000-yard passers – from 2000 to 2012. ECU, using the same offense, has had a 3,000-yard passer in each of McNeill’s first five seasons. Carden topped his own school record with 4,736 passing yards last season in leading the Pirates to an 8-5 record.

Before Carden, Dominique Davis set and broke the school passing record in his two seasons at quarterback in 2010 and ’11. To put that production in perspective, ECU had one 3,000-yard passer in school history before McNeill was hired (Jeff Blake, 3,073 yards in 1991).

That’s one reason McNeill, who is 37-27 at ECU, is not fretting a transition to new quarterback, even with a new offensive coordinator, in 2015. (Another reason is the defense returns its quarterback in senior linebacker Zeek Bigger, who led the conference with 140 tackles last season. Senior corner Josh Hawkins, who led the team with five interceptions, will also help an improving group that ranked in the top 40 in total defense of the second straight year.)

The Pirates, entering their second season in an expanded American Athletic Conference, will place their trust in the offensive system, one that placed them third in the country in passing yards (371.9 per game) in 2014 and 23rd in scoring (35.8 points per game).

“We’re going to run the same offense as long as I’m here,” McNeill said. “Each coordinator adds his own flavor, but the basics don’t change.”

McNeill said he needed “5 seconds, if that long,” to promote assistant Dave Nichol to offensive coordinator to replace Lincoln Riley, who left for the same job at Oklahoma.

Nichol, like Riley, worked as a graduate assistant at Texas Tech with McNeill and has coached the receivers the past three years at ECU. To fill Nichol’s spot on the staff, McNeill promoted another Riley, Garrett, who is Lincoln’s younger brother.

Nichol’s first task will be to find a new quarterback. Sophomore Kurt Benkert, junior Blake Kemp and junior Cody Keith will be given the chance to compete in August to replace Carden, McNeill said. Benkert took the majority of the reps with the first-team offense in the spring, but McNeill’s not ready to name a starter.

“We want to make sure everyone gets an equal chance,” McNeill said. “Whoever produces the most in practice, will earn it.”

One thing, McNeill said, he won’t do is shuffle quarterbacks.

“I’m going to pick one and let him get settled in and give that guy a chance to lead,” McNeill said.

Benkert and Keith learned from Carden the past two years and absorbed the offense. Kemp is a junior college transfer who put up big numbers at Mesa Community College.

Whoever wins the job will have a veteran offensive line, with four returning starters, in front of them and a deep backfield led by senior running back Chris Hairston (6.7 yards per carry).

Receiver Justin Hardy, a fourth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, readies for an NFL career with the Football Bowl Subdivision record for career receptions (387). Hardy caught an incredible 121 passes last season, for 1,494 yards, but junior receiver Isaiah Jones (81 catches, 830 yards) will likely be the starting quarterback’s top target.

More concerning to McNeill than replacing the production of Carden and Hardy is the way ECU finished the 2014 season. The Pirates started 6-1 and were in the College Football Playoff rankings with an inside track at a major bowl bid but lost four of their last six games.

“You alway learn from your wins and your setbacks,” McNeill said.

ECU might have been caught off-guard by the strength of the AAC, which was formerly known as the Big East. The Pirates smashed UNC 70-41 and knocked off Virginia Tech 28-21 on the road before conference play began.

In the conference, the Pirates went a disappointing 5-3 with losses at Temple (20-10), at Cincinnati (54-46) and at home to Central Florida (32-30) on a last-minute Hail Mary. They also struggled in wins over South Florida and Connecticut, a pair of teams that went a combined 6-18 last season.

“The competitive nature of the league was obvious,” McNeill said. “We can’t go into any game thinking we’ve got it. We have to play our best each game.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938

ECU at a glance

2014: 8-5 (5-3 AAC)

Coach: Ruffin McNeill (37-27, sixth year at ECU)

Returning starters: Offense (6), Defense (5), Special teams (1)

Plus

▪  Football teams, on any level, are only as good as their offensive line and the Pirates have a strong group, led by senior left tackle Ike Harris (25 starts the previous two seasons).

ECU’s top three running backs averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season. Even without Breon Allen (869 yards, 6.5 per carry), the Pirates running game should be in good enough shape to help the new starting quarterback.

▪  Senior linebacker Zeek Bigger has a great football name (a tradition for the same school that produced Dustin Lineback). He can also play a little bit. You have to be able to tackle in space and Bigger, who led the team with 140 tackles, can do that in spades.

Minus

▪  The Pirates’ turnover margin (minus-4) was one of the worst in the country (92nd in FBS) and that was with a three-year starter at quarterback only throwing 10 interceptions (in 617 attempts).

▪  As a program in general, ECU needs to find a way to be more consistent. The team that crushed UNC 70-41 in September looked nothing like the one that lost to Temple 20-10.

Best-case scenario: The offense keeps on keeping on with new names and the Pirates get through a difficult first half of the season to play their best ball in the conference and go on to win the East Division.

Worst-case scenario: The offense takes a half-step back, the kicking game struggles and the defense does the best it can do against a difficult schedule. With three losses out of the league, a .500 conference record equals no bowl trip.

Bottom line: Opening with four of the first six games on the road is a tall task for any team, let alone one with a new quarterback, but in Year 6, Ruffin McNeill has a good foundation of talent and the Pirates will find their way to seven regular-season wins.

Newcomer to watch

Deondre Farrier, WR

The Pirates have to replace both Justin Hardy and Cam Worthy at receiver. There’s plenty of returning options but Farrier, a 6-1, 195-pound freshman, has the potential to be a future star. He caught 118 passes for his high school team in Orlando, Fla., last season.

Schedule

Sept. 5 Towson

Sept. 12 at Florida

Sept. 19 at Navy

Sept. 26 Virginia Tech

Oct. 3 at SMU

Oct. 10 at Brigham Young

Oct. 17 Tulsa

Oct. 22 Temple

Oct. 30 at Connecticut

Nov. 7 South Florida

Nov. 14 OPEN

Nov. 19 at Central Florida

Nov. 28 Cincinnati

Schedule analysis

ECU doesn’t play at least one in-state opponent for the first time since 1998. There are plenty of other challenges, including trips to Florida and BYU out of the conference and a home date with Virginia Tech.

Inside the American, the addition of Navy gives the conference 12 teams and ECU will be in the East division with three of the teams (Temple, UCF and Cincinnati) it lost to last year.

This is a tough schedule, made more difficult by how many consecutive weeks (10) the Pirates will play without an open date.

The only break is there are no games scheduled in a NFL stadium after playing in three last year in front of sparse (at best) crowds.

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