McNeill era starts today|Pirates open season at home against Tulsa

Published 2:25 pm Sunday, September 5, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
The last time fans saw the Pirates play in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Skip Holtz was standing on a podium inviting over 40,000 fans to come down on the field and celebrate East Carolina’s thrilling 38-32 victory over No. 18 Houston in the Conference USA championship game.
The Pirates’ football program has changed a lot since then, but the hope is the end results won’t. Holtz is now coaching at South Florida, while 29 players from that two-time defending conference title winning team are now gone.
Leading East Carolina is first-year head coach, and former Pirate alum, Ruffin McNeill, who has spent the last 10 years coaching on the defensive side of the ball at Texas Tech.
Today, McNeill will lead the Pirates out on the field in a loaded season opener. Not only is today’s 2 p.m. game versus Tulsa the first one of the McNeill era, but it’s also the home opener, Conference USA opener, and will be played on national television (ESPN2).
It doesn’t get much bigger than that for a first game.
Tulsa comes into Greenville having finished with a 5-7 (3-5) record in 2009, dropping off a bit from its success 2008 campaign in which it lost the C-USA title game to ECU. Fourth-year coach Todd Graham and his Golden Hurricane are looking to get back to its winning ways. This offseason, Graham has placed a premium on defense and that is where this year’s team is looking to make its mark.
Tulsa runs a 3-5 defense that is littered with hybrid linebacker/safety-types with the hopes of keeping up with the run-and-gun spread offense teams, such as the what the new-look Pirates offense hope to be.
Up front, the Hurricane is led by sophomore DE Cory Dorris (6-4, 275), while the linebacking unit is powered by 6-4, 228-pound WLB Tanner Antle. Starting at MLB will be freshman Shawn Jackson. In the secondary, sophomore free safety Dexter McCoil, who at 6-4, 190 is a big player with big talent.
The Pirates will combat that Tulsa defense with their new-look spread offense led by first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who is the youngest coordinator in the country.
ECU has been entrenched in a summer-long quarterback battle between sophomore walk-on Brad Wornick and junior transfer Dominique Davis. The athletic Davis has been the fans’ choice for most of the summer, but don’t be too surprised if Wornick leads the first-team offense.
The Pirates’ coaching staff has praised the decision-making ability of Wornick, while touting Davis’ leaders ship and physical tools. Either way it’s a coin flip.
Senior Dwayne Harris will lead a talented wide receiver unit that should be able to help out whoever is taking the snaps. The Pirates have a great mix of old and young playmakers of all shapes and sizes. ECU can trot out 6-8 star-in-the-making Justin Jones, or 5-8 speedster Michael Bowman.
Rushing the ball will be Jonathan Williams, who has had a quiet summer; and that’s a good thing. Williams has potential to be a real factor for the ECU offense, especially running behind a solid O-line that returns starters (LT) Willie Smith, (LG) Cory Dowless and (RG) D.J. Scott. If healthy, junior Will Towery is expected to start at center, if not Dalton Fields will get the nod. Today will also mark the debut of 6-6, 323-pound freshman Grant Harner, who beat out Steven Baker for the starting RT job.
Defensively, the Pirates had to replace nine starters from last year’s unit, that as of now, has three of its four D-lineman playing in the NFL. Defense was the key to East Carolina’s success, and if they want to continue to win that trend must continue as well.
As with the offense, the defense is adjusting to a new, more up-tempo scheme. Under first-year coordinator Brian Mitchell, the Pirates will be playing a lot of man-to-man, blitz-heavy defenses which should be extremely fun to watch.
ECU returns only two starters, but they are good ones in corners Emanuel Davis (C-USA preseason first-team selection) and Travis Simmons.
Tulsa will attack that unit with last year’s FBS all-purpose yards leader WR Damaris Johnson and returning starting quarterback G.J. Kinne. Operating out of Tulsa’s multifaceted offense which can do anything from spread to option football, Kinne led the team in rushing and passing. However, Tulsa is hoping that this year he will just lead the crew in passing. The Hurricane have had a loaded battled for starting running back, which was won by freshman Trey Watts
Offensive line play was an issue for the Hurricane last season because of injuries. The unit is a small one, as no player is heavier than 305 pounds
Johnson, a 5-8 junior, is fourth on C-USA’s all-time all-purpose yards list, and will have a big impact as a wideout and a return man.
Which leads us to special teams.
Special teams figures to play a tremendous part in today’s game and the rest of the year for the Pirates, and is the one area of the team that should truly worry ECU fans. The Pirates had to replace punter Matt Dodge, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Giants, as well as Ben Hartman, ECU’s all-time points leader. In a surprise move, former placekicker Ben Ryan will now be the punter, while Maryland transfer Michael Barbour will kick field goals.
Tulsa counters with senior punter Michael Sulch, who averaged 44.5 yards per punt last season and veteran kicker Kevin Fitzpatrick.