ECU faces big challenge in opener

Published 9:55 pm Friday, September 2, 2011

GREENVILLE — East Carolina will have its hands full today when it opens up the 2011 season against a South Carolina team that is ranked 12th in the country and is being touted as the best group ever assembled in a Gamecocks’ uniform.
In 2010, South Carolina won its first-ever SEC East title and finished the year 9-5 thanks to the play of running back Marcus Lattimore, WR Alshon Jeffrey and QB Stephen Garcia.
The Pirates, led by first-year coach Ruffin McNeill, ended the 2010 season with a 6-7 record and an appearance in the Military Bowl, and bring back their own stars in QB Dominique Davis, WR Lance Lewis and CB Emanuel Davis, who along with WR Michael Bowman will not play in tonight’s game due to a one-game suspension.
The loss of Davis, a three-year starter, will be costly as ECU’s new 3-4 defense must defend against a big and talented wide receiver group led by the 6-4, 230-pound Jeffrey, a 2010 second-team all-American wideout who caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and six TDs.
Aside from Jeffrey, who if he matches his production from a year ago will be the school’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, USC features 6-4, 214-pound senior Jason Barnes and 6-4, 203-pound junior D.L. Moore to go along with speedsters like Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington.
Garcia was expected to trigger the offense this season, but the oft-troubled QB was suspended twice this summer from the team, opening the door for sophomore Connor Shaw, who will play the first quarter before Garcia enters the game in the second. As to who will play the third, only coach Steve Spurrier knows. Garcia is a bit of a dual-threat quarterback as he threw 3,059 yards and was the team’s third-leading rusher. Expect some designed runs when he enters the game.
Defending the pass will be a big challenge for the ECU defense, but it is imperative the Pirates stop Lattimore. Last year the Pirates fielded one of the worst defenses in the entire FBS, as it was last in total defense and 117th (out of 120 teams) against the run.
The Gamecocks posses potential to beat teams either way, but why wouldn’t they try the easiest way first by giving the ball to Lattimore, who ran for 1,197 yards and 17 TDs a season ago to be named the National Freshman of the Year.
East Carolina’s offense figures to fair a bit better against South Carolina, but that all depends on how fast its revamped line jells. The unit boasts a total number of starts 15 between them, with 12 coming from sophomore RT Grant Harner and three from guard-turned-center Doug Polochak.
That unit must fend off one of the best defensive end tandems in the nation in junior 6-7, 260-pound all-SEC performer Devin Taylor (7.5 sacks) and 6-2, 276-pound senior Melvin Ingram, who led the team with 9 sacks. Joining that group will be 6-6, 254-pound D-end Jadeveon Clowney. Viewed by many as the No.1 prospect in the class of 2010, the freshman will make his much-anticipated debut today against ECU.
Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and his unit did well against pass-rushing defenses last season because the line was a bit more sturdy and Davis does a great job of getting rid of the ball fast, which forced a lot of teams to back off the blitz. However, the equation changes if SC can get pressure from its front four, which would allow the defense to drop seven players back in coverage where all-American candidate CB Stephen Gilmore awaits.