Sept. 6: East Carolina at South Carolina, 7 p.m.
East Carolina takes
to new conference
By AARON BEARD, AP Sports Writer
GREENVILLE, N.C. — East Carolina is bringing its high-scoring offense to a new conference, along with the goal of topping what was the program’s best season in two decades.
The Pirates, 10-3 last year, have left Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference with a returning quarterback, a record-chasing receiver and a defense aiming to build of last season’s improvement. They’ll also get a few chances to face power-conference opponents early in coach Ruffin McNeill’s fifth year.
Senior quarterback Shane Carden, a 4,000-yard passer, said this year’s success depends on the Pirates’ mental approach.
“I believe this team can win every game on this schedule,” Carden said. “At the same time, I believe we can lose every game on this schedule. This team will never be good enough to just show up to a game and just play. We have to prepare like it’s a championship game every week — it doesn’t matter who we play.”
East Carolina won 10 games for the first time since 1991, including two road romps against Atlantic Coast Conference programs North Carolina and North Carolina State.
The offense averaged a school-record 40.2 points, with receiver Justin Hardy entering the year on pace to set the Bowl Subdivision record for career catches.
As for the defense, it allowed its lowest scoring and yardage totals under McNeill while forcing 24 takeaways. It lost eight starters, though some of the players inheriting starting jobs have already played significant reps.
Here are five things to watch for the Pirates this season:
HARDY’S MARCH: Hardy was once an overlooked recruit and walk-on working on the scout team. He enters his senior year as the focus of the Pirates’ attack. Hardy had 114 catches last year, and his 266 career catches put him 84 shy of the career FBS record set by Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles. “I don’t even know how many passes I’m getting until after the game,” he said, “so I really don’t think about it.”
OFFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT: Carden said the Pirates’ attack needs to move faster than it did last year or “it won’t be good enough.” Six starters are back from that unit. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said it will take time to gel, though he added, “If we reach our potential, we’re going to be pretty tough to stop.”
NEW RUNNER: Among the changes on offense: a new running back. Vintavious Cooper was one of C-USA’s top rushers with 1,193 yards. Senior Breon Allen was the No. 2 rusher with 311 yards and is listed on the preseason depth chart alongside junior Chris Hairston (186 yards).
UP FRONT: The defensive line is a concern. The Pirates had already lost lineman Terrell Stanley (seven sacks) due to an offseason car wreck. Then fellow lineman Terry Williams suffered a knee injury in practice this week, with team spokesman Tom McClellan saying Williams is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. That leaves senior Chrishon Rose as the lone lineman who started more than one game last year in the 3-4 scheme.
NON-CONFERENCE PLAY: The Pirates’ always-tough non-conference schedule has UNC visiting Greenville, while ECU travels to play ACC program Virginia Tech and South Carolina out of the Southeastern Conference. The three games come on consecutive weekends in September, giving ECU an early shot to build some buzz.
Nov. 22: South Alabama at South Carolina, TBA
South Alabama has ‘pep in our step’
MOBILE, Ala. — All the parts are in place for South Alabama to have the best offensive squad in the program’s six-year history — if the team can answer its question at quarterback.
Surrounded by a plethora of returning skill players and eight starters overall, Brandon Bridge takes over under center. The 6-5 Canadian showed promise as a dual-threat backup last season, but his consistency and decision-making must be cleaned up in the full-time role.
“Brandon can make a lot of plays, and I sat on my back porch last season trying to decide if he was going to be our starter back then,” USA coach Joey Jones says. “But we went with (All-Sun Belt senior Ross Metheny). Now it’s Brandon’s time. And he’s in the same spot as any quarterback from little league football to college, where he just has to stay away from mistakes.
”USA’s top three running backs and top four pass-catchers are back, led by first-team All-Sun Belt tight end Wes Saxton. That receiving corps should be even deeper with the addition of Alabama transfers Josh Magee and Marvin Shinn. Up front, two all-conference tackles return in Chris May and Ucambre Williams to anchor a line that allowed the fewest sacks in the Sun Belt last season.
On defense, Travis Pearson takes over as defensive coordinator, promoted from linebackers coach after former defensive play-caller Kevin Sherrer took a position on Georgia’s staff. Pearson will try to continue the focus on strong play up front, but USA must replace first-team all-conference defensive linemen Alex Page and Romelle Jones.
Led by returning nose tackle Jerome McClain, junior college All-America end Jimmie Gipson III and playmaking linebacker Maleki Harris, the front seven should be solid once again, but depth may be a concern at multiple positions.
“At defensive end, we feel good. But with those inside guys, we have depth issues right now,” Jones says. “We need some junior college guys to play in those spots right away.
”Four starters return for a nickel-heavy secondary that allowed the second-fewest passing yards in the Sun Belt last season, but that performance came with the support of a strong pass rush. This season’s secondary may have to lead rather than follow.
USA finished its first full-fledged season of FBS play with bowl eligibility (6–6 record) and one win shy of the Sun Belt title. Now the bar is raised, and the Jaguars are no longer the ever-changing conference’s newcomer.
“We are not a veteran in this conference by any means, but things have changed quickly,” Jones says. “We were about a play or two away from winning a conference championship and going to a bowl. There is some pep in our step.
”Taking another step forward is plausible but carries conditions. Last year’s team won by committing very few turnovers on offense and causing disruption on the defensive front. The 2014 squad must do the same with a new quarterback and new starters on the defensive line. After a tough home opener against Mississippi State, the Jaguars face five consecutive winnable conference games before difficult road trips to UL Lafayette and Arkansas State. If the Jaguars are riding a winning streak at midseason, title contention could be a possibility.