The South Carolina 2011 football season has quite possibly become the most anticipated season in the history of the program. Coming off a 2010 season in which the Gamecocks won the SEC Eastern Division championship with a team that returns most of its key components, expectations are higher than ever in Columbia. Today we take a look at the 2011 season opener - East Carolina.
In his first season as head coach of his Alma Mater, Ruffin McNeill came into the Pirate program and re-energized the fan base after Skip Holtz left to take over at South Florida. Despite losing 34 lettermen from the 2009 program - the most in the FBS - McNeill led the program to a six-win season and a berth in the Military Bowl against Maryland. ECU lost that game to finish the season 6-7
Even though McNeill was the Defensive Coordinator at Texas Tech prior to his arrival at ECU, he brought a few pages from the Red Raider offense with him. The Pirate offense was one of the most high-powered offenses in the nation. ECU racked up over 5,500 yards on the season and 478 points. The 438 ypg ranked 26th in the FBS and the 36.8 points per game ranked 17th.
Quarterback Dominique Davis returns for his senior season in 2011 as one of the most prolific passers in the country. In 2010, Davis was fourth in the nation in passing yards with 3,967 yards, more than Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and Boise State's Kellen Moore. Davis completed 65% of his passes and threw for 305 ypg with 37 touchdowns. If Davis had a weakness it was interceptions. Davis was picked off 16 times, but was only picked off once in every 38 passes.
Davis lost one of his top two receivers to graduation in Dwayne Harris. Harris led the team in receptions (101) and yards (1,123), and was second in touchdowns with 10. The Pirates do return Lance Lewis, who was second on the team with 89 receptions and 1,116 yards. Lewis' 14 touchdowns led the Pirates. East Carolina will have to find a second option to Lewis this season. Running back Jonathan Williams - who also graduated - was third on the team with 52 catches for 431 yards and a touchdown, and receiver Michael Bowman was fourth with 47 catches for 434 yards and three touchdowns. A potential target for this season will be redshirt sophomore Justin Jones. At 6-8, Jones is probably the tallest player in the nation and was a "jump ball" target for Davis last year. Some will remember that it was Jones who went up and over Tulsa defenders for a 33-yard touchdown as time expired for a 51-49 ECU victory in McNeill's coaching debut.
ECU will have to improve on a running attack that was simply not utilized last season. The Pirates were 116th out of 120 FBS teams in total carries with just 358. By comparison, Marcus Lattimore himself had 249 carries, just over 100 less than ECU's team. The Pirates had 1,546 yards, 94th in the country. Doing that will be extremely difficult for ECU 2011. Not only do the Pirates lose their starter in Williams, they also lose back-up Giavani Ruffin. The leading returning rusher is sophomore Michael Dobson, who carried the ball just 11 times in 13 games but did run for 62 yards, a 5.6 ypc average. Not only will the Pirates be looking for help at running back, they desperately need help on the offensive line. Center Dalton Faulds is the only returner from last season and ECU lost seven of 11 on the two-deep depth chart (three players were listed at right guard). Both back-up tackles were freshmen last season and the only guard returning out of the five listed was also a freshmen. Even Faulds' back-up at center was a senior.
As impressive as the ECU offense was last year, the defense was equally putrid. The Pirates were the worst team in the country statistically. ECU gave up an average of 478.7 ypg, nearly 10 more yards per game than New Mexico, the second worst in the nation. East Carolina was equally bad against the run and the pass. Opponents rushed for 227 ypg (117th in the nation) and threw for 252 ypg (107th). Opponents averaged 44 points per game against the ECU defense.
Perhaps the main reason ECU struggled so much defensive was because of their youth. There were only four seniors that started and both defensive ends were freshmen. Any time you return seven of eleven starters you are happy and you can only go up from here.
However, two of the four seniors were the top two tacklers on the team. Aptly named Dustin Lineback who, yes, was a linebacker led the team with 119 tackles, and fellow linebacker Melvin Patterson had 94.
Up front, ECU loses defensive tackle Josh Smith, who had 69 tackles - 11 for loss - and two sacks. Senior Antonio Allison is the likely replacement entering the fall. At linebacker the Pirates lose two of the three starters in Lineback and Patterson, and will likely see sophomore Ty Holmes replace Patterson and senior Cliff Perryman replace Lineback.
In the secondary, ECU only loses conerback Travis Simmons and will replace him with Jacobi Jenkins. The secondary will be the most experienced with three seniors and a junior in the starting line-up.
South Carolina offense vs. East Carolina defense
Though Carolina tended to struggle a bit offensively against weaker competition in 2010, if the Gamecocks hope to take that next step and become a national power, they need to have a field day against the Pirates. The Gamecock offensive line should manhandle the much smaller defensive line of ECU and Marcus Lattimore should have a huge game to kickoff his potential Heisman campaign. Quarterback Stephen Garcia, who will likely be the starter, should be able to have a big day as well and the bigger, more physical Gamecock receivers should be able to push the Pirate defense around and go up and get the ball. Jenkins will be the only 6-0 cornerback so look for Garcia to try and hit his receivers up high.
East Carolina offense vs. South Carolina defense
If Carolina does not correct its struggles in the secondary, Davis could throw for 400 yards. That's if he's not running for his life. The key battle will be the Pirate offensive line against the Gamecock defensive line. Carolina has arguably the best defensive line in the country and could feast on an inexperienced Pirate offensive line. If the Gamecocks can pressure Davis, they could force him into mistakes to give the Gamecock offense great field position.
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