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Florida Gators' opponent preview: East Carolina Pirates

Florida faces a familiar opponent on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Gators host East Carolina, the same team they beat 28-20 in last year’s Birmingham Bowl.

OFFENSE 

The East Carolina offense is not the same one Florida faced in the Birmingham Bowl. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley moved on to take the same position at Oklahoma. Quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy, two of the best players in school history at their positions, both graduated and have moved on.

However, the scheme still looks the same under new offensive coordinator Dave Nichol, who previously served as ECU’s outside receivers coach for three seasons.  

Quarterback

Without Carden, the plan was to turn the offense over to redshirt sophomore Kurt Benkert, who played in three games last season. A torn ACL in fall camp ended his season and handed the reigns to Blake Kemp, a redshirt junior who transferred from Mesa Community College.

In his first game as the starter last weekend against Towson, Kemp went 29-37 for 230 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked one time.

James Summers, a transfer from Hinds Community College, could also see some action for the Pirates.

Running Back

Chris Hairston will anchor the Piartes’ running game this fall for the first time in his career. Hairston ran the ball 17 times for 76 yards last season in the Birmingham Bowl, but it was Breon Allen that led ECU with 869 rushing yards last season. In the ECU opener last week, Hairston ran 18 times for 154 yards and four touchdowns. Averaging 8.6 yards per carry with a long of 45 yards, Hairston is the lead back Florida is preparing for this weekend.

Anthony Scott is the second running back, just as he was in the Birmingham Bowl, and he ran 12 times for 70 yards last week.

Wide Receiver

Without the pair of 1,000-yard receivers Hardy and Cam Worthy gone, Isaiah Jones is the team’s leading returner at the position. Jones totaled 830 yards and five touchdowns last season. In the team’s opener against Townson, he led the Pirates with six catches and 77 yards.

None of the other receivers had standout days in the box score. Quay Johnson and Jimmy Williams each caught four passes last week after combining for 31 catches last season. Davon Grayson caught three passes last weekend but has the second most yards for a returning receiver on the team.

Tight End

Senior Bryce Williams returns after leading the tight end last season with 18 catches for 237 yards and four touchdowns. He’s the clear leader at the position, which also includes one sophomore and two freshmen. The sophomore, Stephen Baggett, did play last season and caught one pass in the Birmingham Bowl.

Offensive Line

The Pirates return four starters on the offensive line from the end of last season, breaking in a new starter at center. Left tackle Ike Harris earned Second Team All-American Conference honors last season and has started all but one game over the last two seasons. Left guard Quincy McKinney transferred from Hutchinson Community College and started every game last season for ECU.

Right guard J.T. Boyd started 11 games last season and earned Second Team All-American Conference honors. Right tackle Dontae Levingston started 10 games last season but was a reserve in the Birmingham Bowl.

Center C.J. Struyk is the only new starter for the ECU offensive line after playing in four games last season while dealing with a right shoulder injury.

DEFENSE 

The Pirates were 38th nationally last season in yards per game allowed (367.3). They had the 11th best rush defense (111.8 yards per game) and 101st best pass defense (255.5 yards per game).

In last Saturday’s season opener against Towson, ECU gave up 416 total yards -- 179 rushing and 237 passing. The Pirates run a 3-4 defense.

Defensive line

Sophomore Demage Bailey takes over at nose tackle for the Pirates. The 6-5, 316-pounder earned a spot on the depth chart during the Birmingham Bowl last year after impressing the coaches in bowl prep.

Next to Bailey, the Pirates get a boost from the return of defensive end Terrell Stanley, who missed all of last season because of injuries suffered in a car accident. Stanley was an All-Conference USA selection after starting 12 games as a sophomore in 2013. Jonathon White starts at the other defensive end after starting seven games last season.

Linebacker

Inside linebacker Zeek Bigger returns for his final season after leading all American Athletic Conference defenders with 140 tackles, the most by an ECU player since 2003. He was ninth in the country with 10.8 tackles per game.

Next to Bigger, Jordan Williams takes over as a sophomore starter after playing in nine games off the bench last season.

Montese Overton started all 13 games as the SAM linebacker last season and was fourth on the team with 68 tackles. He has a new starter next to him as Joe Allely takes over at the WILL linebacker spot after playing in all 13 games on special teams and as a reserve linebacker last season.

Cornerback

Josh Hawkins starts at one of the cornerback positions after being a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award last season. Playing as the field cornerback, he led the team and was 24th nationally in both interceptions (five) and pass breakups (11).

Rocco Scarfone takes over as a full-time starter this season after earning his first career start in the Birmingham Bowl. Scarfone has been an important part of the ECU special teams units in recent years.

Safety

Terrell Richardson will take over at strong safety this year after starting just two games there last season. One of those games was the Birmingham Bowl after starter Lamar Ivey was injured. Richardson made six tackles in the bowl game.

Travon Simmons will start at free safety this season. He also started against Florida in the bowl game, the first start of his career. The redshirt sophomore made three tackles in that game.


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