By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on August 19, 2011 1:47 PM
In some ways, Ruffin McNeill experienced two different seasons in his first year at East Carolina. The coach is hoping for a little more consistency the second time around.
Much will depend on how well the Pirates take to a new defensive scheme and how well they navigate their traditionally tough nonconference schedule.
The Pirates (6-7) reached a bowl game for the fifth straight year thanks largely to an explosive offense and was in contention to reach the Conference USA championship game until the final week of the regular season, but they had one of the nation's worst defenses and faded badly down the stretch.
The six wins -- including against instate rival N.C. State of the Atlantic Coast Conference -- offered a foundation for the Pirates going forward under McNeill, a former ECU defensive back who arrived from Texas Tech to take over after Skip Holtz left for South Florida. The next step is building something more, from chasing a third C-USA title in four years to winning a marquee game against BCS programs like Virginia Tech, North Carolina and South Carolina.
"I want another conference championship, personally," defensive tackle Michael Brooks said. "We have high expectations. We can do really well with the new scheme and the same ol' offense -- the explosive offense.
"We want to prove to everybody how good we are and how much talent we have here."
There's no questioning the offense under the direction of Dominique Davis. The senior won the starting quarterback job in training camp last year despite missing spring drills and the program's introduction to the spread offense McNeill brought from Texas Tech. He threw for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdowns with 16 interceptions, leading an offense that averaged nearly 37 points per game.
The second year in the offense could see even better scoring totals, especially if the unit achieves the improved consistency offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley wants to see.
"We can't have the lulls we had," Riley said. "When we were explosive, we could move the ball on anybody. But we've got to be that way more often. That comes with experience and having guys that have done this before."
The most glaring challenges for the offense is replacing top receiver Dwayne Harris and leading rusher Jon Williams.
Lance Lewis is back as a 1,000-yard receiver along with experienced returnees in Michael Bowman, Justin Jones, Andrew Bodenheimer and Joe Womack. Junior college transfer Reggie Bullock could spark the ground game, while sophomores Torrance Hunt and Michael Dobson were in the mix on the preseason depth chart.
But offensive improvement could be wasted if a defense that gave up an NCAA-record 572 points last season doesn't get better.
East Carolina started the year 5-2, but lost five of six to close the year as the defense's season-long struggles worsened. While East Carolina allowed 44 points and nearly 480 yards per game, the Pirates allowed the final six opponents to average 54 points -- including 76 points in an ugly home loss to Navy and its triple-option running attack.
The Pirates ended the year by allowing 51 points in the Military Bowl loss to Maryland. In a telling stat, the Pirates allowed an average of 6 yards per play on first downs, a big reason opponents kept the chains moving.
McNeill and defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell hope a switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 will help. The change allows East Carolina to put more speedy linebackers on the field instead of relying on its shaky depth among pass rushers on the line.
If the defense improves, East Carolina could again play for a spot in the league championship game. If it doesn't, it will only flirt with bowl eligibility.
"Are we satisfied with that? No," McNeill said. "We came here to win championships. That's the first thing I told (athletic director Terry Holland) and his group: we came here to win championships."