The Pirates returned six starters on defense and switched to a 3-4 scheme for 2011 in hopes of improving on a 2010 defense that ranked 120th in yards surrendered (478.77 ypg) and second-to-last in scoring (44.0 ppg). A new and improved defense to go along with the 16th-ranked scoring offense (36.77 ppg) from 2010 led to high expectations entering last fall.
While the defense improved dramatically, finishing 56th in total defense (376.33 ypg), the Pirates (5-7, 4-4 C-USA) could not get out of their own way on offense. East Carolina committed an FBS-high 35 turnovers, including four in a 35-20 loss to North Carolina, and failed to reach a bowl game for the first time in six seasons.
McNeill enters his third season at the helm with more questions than answers. Gone is quarterback Dominique Davis (334-of-494 passing, 3225 yards, 25 TD, 19 INT) and career touchdown receptions leader Lance Lewis (60 rec, 600 yards, 8 TD).
Senior Brad Wornick, junior Rio Johnson, sophomore Shane Carden and redshirt freshman Cody Keith are currently listed as co-starters at quarterback. Johnson (20-of-29 passing, 157 yards, 1 INT) is the only one with any experience.
Whoever wins the starting job will have an experienced offensive line to protect him as well as last season's top receiver in Justin Hardy (64 rec, 658 yards, 6 TD) to throw to. The four returning starters along the offensive line struggled in 2011. East Carolina ranked 92nd in sacks allowed (2.50 per game) and 105th in rushing offense (109.08 ypg).
To be fair, the running game is not a focus in East Carolina's aerial attack. Nonetheless, the top three running backs from last season, led by Torrance Hunt (109 car, 489 yards, 2 TD), are all back this fall. North Carolina transfer Hunter Furr will likely compete for playing time as well. Overall, the offense returns seven starters.
Defensively, McNeill must replace three of four starters in a secondary that helped the Pirates rank 33rd in pass defense (202.17 ypg) last season. Fortunately, the Pirates welcome back six starters in the 3-4 scheme installed last fall. An experienced front seven should go along way in making up for the heavy losses in the secondary.
Quotable: "It'll play its way out. I feel good about all four guys. I'm looking forward that battle. One thing I know is we'll have three guys there, even the young guy [Keith]. He's a gunslinger. He can throw it around too. But I like all four of those guys at quarterback, so I'm looking forward to getting around them." – McNeill on the quarterback battle
Matchup to Watch: The Pirates' schedule is certainly front-loaded with three straight road games following the season opener at home against Appalachian State. Sandwiched between trips to South Carolina and North Carolina is a meeting with defending C-USA champion Southern Miss on Sept. 15. A loss to the Golden Eagles and the Pirates could be facing a 1-3 or 0-4 start to the season. A win in Hattiesburg would not only help avoid a poor start to the year, but also provide confidence for the new starting quarterback moving forward. With Southern Miss likely still adjusting to a new coaching staff early in the season, this game is a prime opportunity for the Pirates to steal a quality conference win and start the season off on a good note.
Familiar Foe: First-year North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora has faced East Carolina every year he has been a head coach. The Sept. 22 matchup will mark the fifth straight season with an encounter between Fedora and the Pirates. The previous four came while Fedora was at Southern Miss from 2008-11. Fedora is 2-2 against East Carolina, including a 48-28 victory last fall.
Sept. 1 Appalachian State
Sept. 8 @ South Carolina
Sept. 15 @ Southern Mississippi
Sept. 22 @ North Carolina
Sept. 29 UTEP
Oct. 4 @ UCF
Oct. 13 Memphis
Oct. 20 @ UAB
Oct. 27 Navy
Nov. 3 Houston
Nov. 10 OPEN DATE
Nov. 17 @ Tulane
Nov. 23 Marshall