GREENVILLE, North Carolina — East Carolina has beaten power-conference teams, put up big offensive numbers and even popped into the national rankings during an impressive three-year run. Now the Pirates must prove they have some staying power.
After 26 wins over three seasons, East Carolina enters its second year in the American Athletic Conference with a new offensive coordinator leading a unit that lost a pair of record-setting performers, while both the offense and defense lost about half their returning starters.
This season will be a measure of whether the Pirates (8-5 last year) have reached sixth-year coach Ruffin McNeill's goal of building a consistent winner.
"I don't think we're necessarily going to take a step back," inside receivers coach Donnie Kirkpatrick said. "We don't want to win 10 and come back to win two, win three and jump back and win nine. We want to be that consistent team that always has a chance to win. This is the test year."
The high-scoring spread offense has been the Pirates' strength, but they've lost all-time passing leader Shane Carden and Justin Hardy — a receiver who set the Bowl Subdivision career receptions record. They've also lost offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who came with McNeill to Greenville in 2010 and left to direct Oklahoma's attack.
With the offense leading the way, the Pirates followed their first 10-win season in two decades by beating Atlantic Coast Conference programs North Carolina and Virginia Tech on the way to returning to the AP Top 25 for six weeks last year in the program's first poll appearance since 2008.
The glaring question is how well ECU will replace Carden, though the offense has some experience with receiver Isaiah Jones and an offensive line with four returning starters.
"Coach Ruff doesn't like to call it rebuilding, he calls it reloading," Jones said. "And that's what we're going to do."
Some things to watch for the Pirates this season:
NEW QB: Sophomore Kurt Benkert has won the starting job after a three-man battle with juniors Cody Keith and Blake Kemp to open training camp. Benkert threw 10 passes last year in spot duty behind Shane Carden, Keith sat out with an injury and Kemp redshirted as a juco transfer, so there's not a ton of experience.
NICHOL'S SHOT: New offensive coordinator Dave Nichol had spent the past three seasons as ECU's outside receivers coach. He inherits a unit that averaged 38 points and 501 yards over the past two seasons. Don't expect a lot of changes. "It's not like I'm going to break out, 'Wow, this is a playbook from the '50s that nobody knows about,'" Nichol said. "Just a few wrinkles here that goes along with our philosophy. It won't be rocket science."
RELIABLE RECEIVERS: The Pirates also lost key receiver Cam Worthy, though Jones provides experience with 81 catches last year. East Carolina will need another receiver to develop, with junior Davon Grayson (25 catches last year) and senior tight end Bryce Williams (18 catches) positioned for a key role among a stable of improving receivers.
MAINTAINING THE DEFENSE: East Carolina's defense has steadily improved through McNeill's tenure and gave up 25.8 points and 367.3 yards per game, similar to their numbers from 2013. Defensive coordinator Rick Smith is focused on improving play in the secondary. "We want to be the ones to have fun and be the ones talked about, also," linebacker Zeek Bigger said.
TOUGH SLATE (AGAIN): East Carolina has long played a tough nonconference schedule populated with big-name opponents. The Pirates have three more of those games in 2015, which could make the transition even tougher for a new quarterback. There's a visit to Florida on Sept. 12, a home game with Virginia Tech two weeks later and finally a trip to BYU on Oct. 10. It's the kind of slate that could give the Pirates some momentum or sink their confidence.
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