With offense under construction, ECU’s defense knows it must dominate

Ever since Ruffin McNeill took over East Carolina’s football program six years ago, the Pirates have been able to count on one thing: points. They were confident they could hang 30 on any opponent.

During McNeill’s first five seasons, his Air Raid offense has averaged 34.1 points per game. Only once have the Pirates failed to post less than 30 points for a season: they averaged 26.2 in 2011.

This season will test the norm.

Record-setting QB Shane Carden graduated and Kurt Benkert, who won the job in camp, is lost for the season with a right knee injury. Points won’t be as automatic.

Blake Kemp, a junior transfer who ran the scout team last season, will lead the offense. The lefty quarterback has never thrown a pass in a Pirates uniform and it might take awhile for him to settle into his new role, something defensive coordinator Rick Smith feels his unit will be well aware come Saturday’s opener at home against Towson.

“I’ve not heard any of our players talking about that, but I think deep down inside they know that we have a new quarterback. They’re not dumb. They realize this will be (Kemp’s) first game at East Carolina,” Smith said. “… They realize that no matter who the quarterback is we have to play great defense, and it’s our job to get the ball back for our offense. Plain and simple.”

The Pirates return five starters from a defensive unit that ranked 53rd nationally in scoring defense (25.8 ppg), 37th in total defense (367.3 ypg), 98th against the pass (255.5 ypg) and 11th against the run (111.8 ypg).

ECU’s defense is spearheaded by tackling-machine Zeek Bigger, a senior inside linebacker who led the American Athletic Conference with 140 tackles last season, the most by any Pirates player since Chris Moore tallied 148 in 2003.

With the graduation of fellow inside linebacker Brandon Williams, who was second on the team with 124 stops, the onus to lead falls squarely on Bigger’s shoulders.

“I’m glad to be back and I’m glad to be here to play this last season in this defense,” Bigger said. “(I have) to be able to come out here and show other people things the way (former ECU LB Jeremy) Grove and them showed me and be able to help out those young guys.”

Smith said Williams’ loss cannot be overlooked and that the leadership role may take some time for Bigger and the rest of the Pirates veterans to grow into.

“We didn’t realize it last year until about the second ball game who the real leader was and that was Brandon, and Zeek kind of fed off of him.” Smith said. “Now that Brandon’s not there, Zeek is a little bit lost because there is nobody else to lead with him.

“(Senior OLB) Montese (Overton) has done a little bit better of job. You don’t really want your leader to be back in the secondary. (Senior CB) Rocco (Scarfone) has tried to lead a little bit but when you are out there on the edge you are always running to get lined up. You’re not in the middle of things.

“You’d like for a guy like (senior defensive end) Johnathan White to be a leader because he is a D-lineman. He’s a quiet kid, he’s going to lead by example.

“Right now, and we’ve talked about it as a staff, we have to lead them ourselves. Zeek’s trying he just needs somebody to step up and help him.”

The quicker the better. The Pirates have enough surrounding talent on offense thanks to a veteran offensive line and a plethora of playmakers at wide receiver, but a sturdy defense would certainly help take the pressure off of Kemp transitions from scout team to starting QB.