Pirates gear up for opener

Published 7:26 pm Monday, August 29, 2011

GREENVILLE — Over the weekend, a tree that collapsed during Hurricane Irene’s 48-hour reign over the East Coast rocked Ruffin McNeill’s house. Next weekend, the Pirates’ second-year coach is hoping that it’s his team that can rock the house at Bank of America Stadium by stunning No. 12 South Carolina in the season opener.
It will be a star-studded affair as the Gamecocks, led by The Ol’ Ball Coach Steve Spurrier, feature a loaded offense that include the likes of Heisman hopefuls tailback Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, along with infamous but talented QB Stephen Garcia.
In 2010 South Carolina went 9-5 to clinch an SEC East crown as Lattimore rushed for 1,230 yards and 17 touchdowns, Jeffery caught 88 receptions for 1,517 yards and nine scores, while Garcia threw for 3,059 yards and 20 TDs.
“Garcia understands what Coach Spurrier wants, just like (ECU QB) Dominique Davis understands what (ECU offensive coordinator) Lincoln (Riley) wants,” McNeill said. “Garcia understands concepts, when to audible to a run, how to read his quarterback-designed plays, where and when to deliver the football. … Then, when you have a running back like Marcus Lattimore, when in trouble he can check to a run.”
South Carolina also features several veterans in its 4-2-5 defense, as only one starter, sophomore free safety Jimmy Legree, is not junior or senior.
The Pirates first depth chart of the 2011 season is loaded with underclassmen. ECU’s new 3-4 defense will feature two sophomore ends in Darrell Johnson and Matt Milner, while junior Michael Brooks will play nose guard.
Behind them, redshirt freshman Jeremy Grove is slated to start at ILB, while either sophomore Kyle Tudor (recovering from a knee injury) or junior Daniel Drake will play the other ILB position.
Who will start at the outside linebackers spots is still up in the air as JUCO transfer Chris Baker is battling sophomore Justin Dixon, who is coming back from a torn ACL suffered in Week 4 last season. On the other side, senior Cliff Perryman and junior Marke Powell are duking it out for the top spot.
In the secondary, returning starter Bradley Jacobs is back at strong safety and will be paired up with first-year starter Damon Magazu who is best-known for his game-clinching interception of a Russell Wilson pass in overtime during ECU’s win over N.C. State a year ago.
At corner, three-year starter Emanuel Davis will be out for the opener due to his one-game suspension following he and teammate Michael Bowman’s arrest this summer for disorderly conduct. Filling his spot will be one of two juniors: Leonard Paulk or Rahkeem Morgan.
Last year’s starting free safety Derek Blacknall has been moved back to cornerback to replace the graduated Travis Williams.
Offensively, Rio Johnson beat out Brad Wornick for the backup quarterback spot, while JUCO transfer Reggie Bullock was able to fend off Michael Dobson to become the top running back.
Returning senior starters Lance Lewis and Andrew Bodenheimer will lead a wideout group that will include true freshman Danny Webster and redshirt freshman Justin Hardy. The receiving corps will be playing without expected starters Michael Bowman (suspension) and Justin Jones (knee).
Up front, the Pirates have been hit hard by injuries as centers Mack Helms (concussion) and Drew Gentry (knee) are both listed as “out” for Saturday.
Those injuries will force the Pirates to move starting guard Doug Polochak to center as Adhem Elsawi fills in at left guard.
ECU is stable at the tackle spots as sophomore Jordan Davis will get his first career start on the left side and returning starter Grant Harner will play on the right. Sophomore Will Simmons is expected to play right guard.