by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

If East Carolina becomes any more flirtatious with the Big East, it might have to make Kim Kardashian the new school spokesperson.

But they’ve probably already thought of that in Greenville.

As the college football conference alignment continues to change more often than Hillary Clinton’s hairstyles, East Carolina remains without a date for the prom. The Pirates continue to bat their eyelashes toward the Big East, which as of yet has shown little or no interest in adding ECU to its mix.

What grates the Pirates is how the Big East has already air-lifted ECU’s fellow league members Houston, SMU, Memphis, and UCF out of Conference USA for next year. The Big East has even cast its reel across the country to lure Mountain West members Boise State and San Diego State into the mix for 2013. As far as we can tell, San Jose State and Fresno State might have also been above the Pirates on the Big East’s shopping list for new members.

What ignominy for ECU!

This developments are nothing new for the Greenville, N.C. school. Back in 2008, the Hartford Courant reported that ECU officials would be willing to make a stunning number of concessions if the Big East would give the Pirates their big break at the BCS level.

Among the offers allegedly on the table: that ECU would forgo entirely its share of Big East revenue on a trial basis, so that conference revenues for the rest of the league remained constant; forgoing any shared BCS bowl revenue until the Pirates made a BCS bowl themselves; provide their own television contract so as not to interfere with the league's existing deal; guaranteeing the sale of 2,500 tickets to their Big East away games; and possibly more.

"We would agree to all of that and others," a prominent ECU booster told the Courant at the time. "Our partnership could be described as a 'hand-in' partnership rather than a 'hand-out' partnership. We wouldn't be asking for anything except the opportunity to prove ourselves as good and productive partners of the eight institutions playing Division I-A football."

Are the Pirates still as desperate for the Big East today? According to sources, absolutely so, despite the fact the pending dissolution of the BCS appears as if it could have negative consequences for Big East TV money. Long-term, the Greenville-based school still believes the Big East is a better bet than CUSA. Although there is some question whether ECU administrators would now be willing to make that sort of gamble on the Big East, a league with many question marks still to be answered.

Still, whenever the Big East door might open again after likely future defections (Rutgers and UConn are still clamoring for inclusion into the ACC, while Louisville and Cincinnati trying to gain the attention of the Big 12), expect ECU to again apply for membership as it has done before.

Until then, however, we’re not holding our breath, and suggest they do the same at the Boneyard and accept Conference USA, at least for the time being. Unfortunately, until further notice, females and minorities apparently seem to have a better chance for membership at Augusta National than ECU does with the Big East.

Besides, the Pirates have other things to worry about this fall, namely getting back into the bowl mix that avoided them last year for the first time since 2005. Which might be important for alum and HC Ruffin McNeill, whose regime moves into a third campaign this fall. More backsliding from last year’s 5-7 disappointment could preclude McNeill a chance to have a fourth year at ECU’s helm.

McNeill, who served as defensive coordinator at Texas Tech under Mike Leach (and succeeded Leach on an interim basis for the January 2010 Alamo Bowl), saw his credentials as a stop-end mastermind take a big hit during his first campaign at Greenville in 2010, a season in which the ECU “D” vaporized when ranking dead last nationally in total defense while allowing a staggering 44 ppg.

And McNeill was supposed to be a defensive coach?

McNeill changed the recipe last fall and the results on the stop end were much better, as the Pirates shaved 12 ppg off of their 2010 per game allowance and leapfrogged more than half of the teams in the country in total defense, cutting more than 100 ypg from 2010 and ending up ranked 56th in that category. Unfortunately, it didn’t help the W-L record, as ECU lost ground in 2011 from the 6-win team of the previous year that advanced to the Military Bowl at RFK Stadium.

Last season’s changes to 3-4 looks on defense proved a much better fit for the personnel on hand, as McNeill and d.c. Brian Mitchell sought a more proper alignment for the various speed-based components on the Pirate “D” last fall.

Only five starters return from the 2011 defense, but there is modest encouragement in Greenville because one of those is ILB Jeremy Grove (left), a 6-1, 233-lb. bundle of energy who posted eye-popping numbers last year when recording a hard-to-believe 122 tackles as a RS frosh. Although a left shoulder injury kept him out of spring drills, he’s expected to be fully recovered in time for fall practice.

There are hopes that the defensive front can generate a better push, but that will require jr. DE Matt Milner to recapture the form he displayed as a frosh in 2010 and not a year ago, when he was slowed by an assortment of injuries including a recurring hip problem. Michael Brooks, not the former LaSalle hoop star but rather a 6'3, 313-lb. sr. NT who is extremely light on his feet, flashed considerable upside a year ago when leading all linemen with 55 tackles. CUSA sources expect him to contend for all-conference honors this fall.

Select newcomers are going to get a long look on defense, especially in the secondary, where three new starters (including both cornerback spots) are needed. Well-regarded juco addition Adonis Armstrong, a former wide receiver, appeared to claim one of the starting CB roles in spring, while touted true frosh safety Lucas Thompson (McNeill’s highest rated recruit from the 2012 class who spurned offers from ACC and Big East schools) could also step into the lineup immediately opposite playmaking jr. FS Damon Magazu (right) , who is expected to be fully recovered from a spring back injury by the time fall camp rolls around. Another juco, safety Godfrey Thompson (a teammate of Armstrong’s at Hinds CC in Mississippi), could also enter the mix.

A less-publicized but potentially-critical staff change from last season involves the enlistment of new special teams coach Kirk Doll from San Jose State. ECU rankled dead last nationally in net punting a year ago and was far down the charts in kickoff returns as well. Two new kickers (P Trent Tignor and PK Warren Harvey) will be taking over those duties in fall.

Meanwhile, the offense is looking for a new pilot for the Air Raid (inspired by McNeill's connection to Mike Leach from their Texas Tech days) after two-year starter Dominique Davis exhausted his eligibility last fall.

Davis, however, had experience from days at Boston College before taking over the Pirates’ QB job two years ago; none of the four candidates to succeed him have seen nearly as much active duty at this level, although Davis’ caddy from 2011, jr. Rio Johnson (left, shown in the spring game), took a handful of snaps last fall and appears to be the favorite to land the job for the September 1 opener vs. Appalachian State. McNeill and o.c. Lincoln Riley will wait until fall camp before officially anointing a starter.

One thing ECU might not miss about Davis was his penchant for mistakes; despite passing for 7192 yards and 72 TDs the past two years, he also tossed 35 picks, including 19 a year ago which contributed heavily to the Pirates’ miserable -14 TO margin in 2011, ranking them next-to-last in the country.

The coaching staff, however, was a bit concerned that Johnson didn’t separate himself from the other QB candidates in spring. Soph Shane Carden, who was weaned on a variation of the Air Raid in prep ranks, could be an intriguing alternative, although Johnson’s combination of a strong arm and agile feet, plus a small dose of experience, make him the most-likely to eventually emerge. Stay tuned for further developments later in August.

Whoever winds up at QB will have some established receiving targets at his disposal, although the top threat from the past two years, wideout Lance Lewis, will instead be spending his summer in the Washington Redskins camp.

Five of the eight receivers who caught 20 or more passes last year return to the fold, lead by WR Justin Hardy (right; set a school record for frosh in 2011 with 64 catches), and rough-hewn sr. Andrew Bodenheimer, a physical wideout who caught 46 passes a year ago and doesn’t mind crossing over the middle to nab an aerial. The most intriguing alternative is jumbo-sized 6'8, 257-lb. jr. Justin Jones, a physical specimen who is deadly on jump balls in the end zone and has turned nine of his 27 career receptions into TDs (including three in one game last year vs. Marshall). But he has had problems staying healthy, with knee and wrist injuries limiting his contributions a year ago.

The infantry has evolved into an underused diversion in Greenville, and o.c. Riley would like to add a bit more balance to the offensive package if he could. He’d also like to find a featured back, which could be former juco Reggie Bullock (left) if he can stay in one piece; at only 178 lbs., Bullock lacks the durability to be an every-down back, and though his fearless style helped him gain 428 yards in limited carries last fall, it also subject him to extra punishment. An intriguing alternative could be North Carolina transfer Hunter Furr, at 223 lbs. built for more heavy-duty use than Bullock but an underachiever during his years at Chapel Hill. Some combo of Bullock, Furr, and jr. Michael Dobson (221 YR in spot duty last fall) will likely be the answer.

The Pirates could dig themselves a hole this September if they can’t sort out their QB situation early; after the App State opener at the Boneyard, three straight road dates are on deck at South Carolina, Southern Miss, and North Carolina in the middle of the month that could put ECU into scramble mode for bowl eligibility well before Columbus Day.

Spread-wise, McNeill has dropped 12 of his last 19 decisions since late in the 2010 campaign. Although it is worth noting that upgraded defensive efforts a year ago curbed the “over” tendencies of 2010 (10-2-1); the Pirates were in fact “under” in 7 of 12 a year ago.

Summary...CUSA sources are mixed in their assessments of both ECU and Ruffin McNeill’s future in Greenville; although another downturn this fall could be hard for McNeill to overcome, most seem to believe McNeill probably has at least another year beyond this one for the Pirates to re-gain the traction the program found during the preceding Skip Holtz years. Things could get dicey for the Pirates, however, unless Rio Johnson or one of the other new alternatives at QB steps into the breach left by the graduation of prolific passer Dominique Davis. ECU’s defense might have improved considerably since 2010, but it’s not likely to get the Pirates to a bowl by itself. For that, the Pirates need the Air Raid to detonate, but the bomb bays will not open unless a capable pilot emerges. And if one doesn’t, it might be another no-bowl year in Greenville...and nervous time in December for Ruffin McNeill.


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