Following a relatively successful 8-5 campaign, the challenge for offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley in 2013 is keeping his players grounded and focused on a daily basis, instead of having them remain content with past success.
"We've got to understand just because we got guys back doesn't mean good things are going to happen," said Riley. "We've got to do the little extra things we did throughout last year that caused us to improve a ton as a unit."
Before coming over to ECU with McNeill, Riley spent seven years at Texas Tech. Towards the end of his tenure, the Red Raiders had one of the nation's most explosive offenses, led by signal-caller Graham Harrell and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who are both currently on NFL rosters. Riley has noticed multiple parallels between those teams and what he has now with ECU.
"(Similar to Texas Tech) I think the guys are really starting to fully take ownership of the offense. They're comfortable with it, they take pride in it and they really believe in it, and I think that has a lot to do with it."
One major difference between Riley's 2013 Pirates and his Texas Tech teams is the skill ECU possesses in the backfield. During his seven seasons in Lubbock, his offenses never featured a 1,000 yard rusher. In 2012, Cooper, a junior-college transfer, burst onto the scene and rushed for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns, despite playing sparingly in the early part of the season.
Riley attributes much of Cooper's success to the other ball carriers, who may not be praised quite as much or given the accolades, but were able to play their role in spelling him.
"What really helped (Cooper) was that we were able to keep him fresh because we had other guys that had other strengths. That's something we're going to strive to continue to have."
Earlier this year, Cooper was the subject of criticism after the team suspended him for the spring session, following his drug-related citation in March. Now that the suspension is lifted, Cooper is participating in summer workouts and the expectation is for him to be given every opportunity in 2013 to repeat or further what he did last year.
"(Cooper) is 100 percent good to go with us. He's done everything he could do and we're looking ahead from (the suspension)," said Riley.
With Reggie Bullock having graduated and Michael Dobson switching positions to safety, ECU loses its top two rushers behind Cooper. Meaning, the backfield will feature some new names and faces to fill the void in 2013.
"We will be counting on guys like Chris Hairston, Cory Hunter, Breon Allen, and Marquez Grayson and some guys like that to step up and really become that backfield we envision," said Riley.
But in the end, it all goes back to the quarterback position. In order for the Air Raid offense to be run correctly, the right guy has to be under center. Carden was recruited out of Houston, TX, by Riley and this coaching staff to specifically be that guy.
In 2012, he passed for 23 touchdowns and 3,116 yards, while rushing for team-best eight touchdowns. Now entering his junior season and first as a full-time starter, more will be asked of Carden.
"I certainly expect a lot of him. I think the biggest thing is for him to make strides this year," said Riley. "I really think he wants to take the next step as far as the leadership, as far as the playing, but it's how he impacts the team, how he impacts the offense, defense, the special teams and everybody within the program that can continue to grow as he gets more comfortable."