Countdown to Kickoff: NCCU

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU will open its season against an FCS opponent for the second time in three years against NCCU Saturday.

East Carolina will kick off the 2014 season against North Carolina Central Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, marking the first meeting between the schools.

It will also be the first game Eagles’ coach Jerry Mack roams the sidelines as a collegiate head coach. He most recently held assistant coach positions at South Alabama (2013-13) and Memphis (2011).

In addition to breaking in a new coach, NCCU will start junior college quarterback Quinn Billerman, who has yet to make a Division I appearance, after he passed for 2,962 yards and 34 touchdowns at New Mexico Military Institute last season.

The Eagles’ most dangerous weapon is junior wide receiver Adrian Wilkins. Wilkins, a threat both vertically and in the return game on special teams, led the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) with 123.5 all-purpose yards per game. And largely because of Wilkins, NCCU had 12 kick-return touchdowns (seven punts, five kick-offs) in the past two seasons, which are the most of any team in FCS during that span.

“One of their top players is Adrian Wilkins. He’s a slot receiver and returner with speed and quickness and they get the ball to him,” said fifth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill, who noted that because of his return capabilities, “we’ll have to be aware on special teams.”

McNeill and his staff have been torn in preparation this week because they are scouting an opponent they had never faced that is led by a first-time coach.

“It’s hard to know what we’re going to get. When we’re watched Central’s film, we’re just watching to see their personnel because (Mack) has kept everything secret,” defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “As far as the offense that he is going to run, we’re just guessing. It’s going to be a combination of what he believes in and what they did at South Alabama.”

Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley added, “First games are always tough. I’ve always believed you can’t over-game-plan for the first game.”

There were no listed position battles amongst the players named on the Pirates’ first-team Monday.

Newcomers Quincy McKinney and Dontae Levingston will start immediately at left guard and right tackle respectively after both players transferred to ECU from the JUCO ranks. In the secondary, senior Lamar Ivey slightly beat out sophomore Terrell Richardson at strong safety and Domonique Lennon was given the nod at free safety over Travon Simmons.

The two most noteworthy injuries on ECU’s injury report are those of nose tackle Terry Williams (left knee) and inside receiver DaQuan Barnes (back), who will both miss Saturday’s game. McNeill did not elaborate how long he expected them to be out of action.

Senior Justin Hardy has already written most of the ECU’s receiving records, but there is one more career milestone that is within his grasp Saturday. The Vanceboro, N.C. native is just three receptions away from eclipsing Dwayne Harris’ mark (268) for the most catches in school history.

ECU lost its first ever meeting with an FCS opponent (Eastern Kentucky) in 1980, but since then has won 22 straight games from the other subdivision.

NCCU has faced just four Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in its short history, losing all four by an average of more than 41 points. Most recently, the Eagles were shut out at Duke 45-0 last season.

Television: ESPNews (Dave Lamont, David Diaz), Radio: Pirate IMG Sports Network (Jeff Charles, Kevin Monroe, Marty Feurer), Kickoff time: 8 p.m.

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