by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We often make boxing analogies in our football coverage. Sometimes it is unavoidable as we look to make the best comparisons between what we witness on the gridiron and related events elsewhere. Which is why we have taken some enjoyment in looking for some non-football parallels to the East Carolina Pirates, who endured one of the most unusual college football campaigns in recent memory last fall. The analogies to the sweet science were easy to connect to last season’s ECU, which resembled a gridiron version of some notable all-offense, no defense boxers from the past such as former featherweight champ Bobby Chacon, or welterweight champ Pipino Cuevas (left), or light heavyweight king Matthew Saad Muhammad, whose punches were always thrown with knockout intent.

The problem for Chacon and Cuevas and Saad Muhammad was that they all gladly absorbed whatever punishment was needed to throw their haymakers, wading through an opponent’s heavy artillery with a suicidal resolve and no fear of the consequences...sometimes with disastrous results. Much, in a way, like last year’s Pirates, who regarded their own defense as something less than a necessary evil, and in essence nothing much more than a means to get the explosive offense back on the field to bomb away as soon as possible.

Numbers don’t lie, and last year’s ECU allowed an NCAA-record 572 points, quite an accomplishment considering the number of wretched stop units we have witnessed over the years. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Pirates had the worst defense in college football history; the pace and tempo of ECU games was always upbeat as the offense was often scoring points just as quickly as the defense was conceding the scores. But it was exhausting keeping pace with the scoring in the Pirates’ games, even if just following along on the internet. Invoking more sports analogies, watching last year’s ECU reminded us of a football version of long-ago basketball games featuring Jerry Tarkanian’s early version of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (although Tark would chide us for inferring that his teams didn’t play defense). Better yet, the late ‘80s-early ‘90s version of Loyola Marymount, featuring Bo Kimble and the ill-fated Hank Gathers. We’re not even sure a track meet analogy applies to last year’s Pirates unless we are recalling the USA’s 4 x 100 meter relay team in 1964, anchored by Bullet Bob Hayes. How else can we describe a team that allowed 42 or more points on ten (!) different occasions, and 51 points or more three times, and was involved in shootouts with scorelines such as 51-49, 44-43, 54-42 in winning efforts as well as defeats by 49-35, 76-35 (with Navy scoring 48 points in the second half), 62-38, and 45-38?

Developments last season were all the more perplexing since ECU had used a solid “D” to anchor back-to-back CUSA title teams under Skip Holtz before he departed for South Florida last year and was replaced by the roly-poly Ruffin McNeill (above right), a good-natured sort and alum whose expertise was supposedly on defense after serving as the stop unit coordinator for Mike Leach at Texas Tech. So much for that assumption, as McNeill (who slimmed down noticeably in the offseason) instead imported a version of the Leach spread from Lubbock to juice up the Pirates’ offense at the expense of the defense. Which by the end of last season was doing a wonderful imitation of traffic cones, as a variety of normally subdued offenses (including Navy, Rice, and Maryland in a 51-20 Eagle Bank Bowl loss) posted offensive numbers that could be confused with the national debt.

There was little wrong with the Pirates’ offense in 2010 that tallied 37 ppg and ranked 8th in passing at 319 ypg. Which fit in with last season’s perplexing theme as the one position that was considered something of a mystery entering the fall was at QB, where Boston College transfer Dominique Davis would be taking over the reins. Nothing in Davis’ performance history at BC suggested he would eventually account for 46 of ECU’s school-record 60 TDs last fall while passing for almost 4000 yards. Expect more of the same from Davis in his senior year as long as o.c. Lincoln Riley can effectively replace do-everything WR/KR Dwayne Harris, a Dallas Cowboys draftee and last year’s CUSA MVP when catching a whopping 101 passes. Riley will be looking at a committee-type approach to take the place of Harris; lanky 6'3 sr. Lance Lewis is likely to become the new featured go-to target after catching 14 TD passes a year ago, although he could have some eligibility concerns after being forced to sit out the last portion of spring drills to focus on academics. The most-intriguing target could be 6'8, 264-lb. Justin Jones, a TE-sized wideout who caught a Hail Mary on the last play from Davis to beat Tulsa in last year’s opener and progressed to the point in spring where McNeill expects him to be an all-league candidate in fall. CUSA sources are also alerting to the presence of true freshman Danny Webster, an early enrollee recruited as a DB but who provided a “wow” factor in spring at WR and whom McNeill has already said will not be redshirted this fall.

Overall, six starters are back from last year’s dynamic strike force, although a spate of injuries in spring left McNeill and Riley scrambling to find a center after the top three at the position went down with injuries. It is hoped that returning starter Dalton Faulds will be recovered from shoulder problems by fall camp, or else Doug Polochak, penciled in as the new starter at LG, could have to become the snapper and cause of chain reaction of moves along the forward wall. The committee approach will also likely be used at RB until someone emerges as the clear-cut successor to punishing Jonathan Williams, who gained 5.5 ypc and caught 52 passes out of the backfield in 2010. Soph Michael Dobson is a long-strider with breakaway possibilities, although speedy juco Reggie Bullock and soph Torrance Hunt, who flashed coast-to-coast ability in spring, figure to fight for carries.

What most CUSA observers will be watching in Greenville, however, is if McNeill and d.c. Brian Mitchell can coax anything out of the aforementioned stop (go?) unit after its epically bad performance in 2010. To be fair, injuries, especially along the DL, did not help matters a year ago when the brain trust eventually had to use LBs at the DE spots, which hardly helped the Pirates slow down enemy rushers who gouged ECU for 226 ypg and a whopping 5.3 ypc. Returning personnel and an infusion of juco talent aimed at providing immediate help have convinced McNeill and Mitchell to switch from last year’s 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 look that hopefully provides more flexibility and a better opportunity to take advantage of the foot speed on the platoon. Although seven starters return on defense, no job was secure (for obvious reasons) in spring as the coaching staff began laying the foundations for an upgraded platoon in fall. Several incoming JC transfers will be expected to contribute right away, including touted DEs John Lattimore and LeRoy Vick. Meanwhile, frosh NT Will Foxx could have anchor potential in the middle of the line, while another frosh product from nearby Gastonia, apltly-named LB Zeek Bigger, figures to get involved somewhere in the mix at MLB. Another frosh, Domonique Lennon, is expected to contribute immediately at SS, where ECU needs some help. A pair of experienced seniors are expected to man the Pirates' CB spots, where Emanuel Davis has performed with some flair in the past.

A significant staff addition could be strength and conditioning guru Jeff Connors, whose departure from Greenville to North Carolina over a decade ago was the source of much controversy in the state. But he’s been welcomed back by McNeill, who noted that last year’s team routinely ran out of gas late in the games and contributed to a late-season nosedive in which ECU lost and failed to cover five of its last six games.

Summary...The Pirates have been awfully entertaining lately, but so can be a trip to the circus, and we suspect that Ruffin McNeill and the ECU fan base would gladly trade some of those fireworks for a more-resolute defense and a few more wins in 2011. Considering that the Pirate defense can’t be any worse than it was a year ago, McNeill’s switch to 3-4 looks for his stop unit seem a reasonable gamble. Yet until evidence surfaces that ECU’s "D" has developed a backbone, we’re not sure the Pirates can even get back into minor bowl territory, of which any CUSA team with six wins can usually find a home. With QB Dominique Davis throwing the ball all around the yard, however, at least we know that ECU will be fun to watch.

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