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Pirates set to kick off season

East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill. (Photo Courtesy of ECU)

GREENVILLE — East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill may not be a Zen master but there is no doubt he is looking for balance as he begins his third year at his alma-matter.
In 2010 the Pirates pass-happy offense became the identity of the team as the unit ranked 16th in the country with a 36.8 points per game average. The only problem was that defense was giving up 44 points per game, the second-worst total in the FBS. Despite that, the Pirates finished the year 6-7 and managed to extend their consecutive bowl streak to five.
Heading into the 2011 season, the general consensus was that if ECU’s defense could improve in its new 3-4 scheme, so would the team’s win total.
The defense held up its end of the bargain as the unit soared to a No. 56 ranking in the FBS in total defense last year after being ranked 120th in 2010. However, the Pirates were hampered by an offense that committed whopping 35 turnovers, the second-most in the country, which lead to a 5-7 (3-3 Conference USA) record and an end to their bowl streak.
Will this be the year that both units live up to their potential? That’s the big question as East Carolina opens its season inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium against traditional FCS power Appalachian State today at noon.
The Mountaineers march into today’s game with something to prove themselves. Last season, ASU finished 8-4 and lost in the first round of the FCS playoffs. It was the first time in six seasons that long-time coach Jerry Moore’s team finished with less than 10 wins and didn’t win the Southern Conference.
The Mountaineers are led by senior all-American middle linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough, who tallied a team-high 105 tackles and 12 tackles for a loss last year and tied for the team lead in sacks with four. Kimbrough, along with 6-0, 185-pound senior corner Demetrious McCray, who led the Southern Conference with five picks last season, spearhead ASU’s 3-3 defense.
On offense, 6-3, 208-pound junior quarterback Jamal Jackson will guide the Mountaineers’ spread attack for the second straight season. Jackson started seven games in 2011 and passed for a school sophomore record 2,001 yards and 15 touchdowns, while he was third in the team in rushing with 296 yards and led ASU in rushing TDs with seven.
The Pirates return seven starters on defense, most notably sophomore Jeremy Grove who led all FBS freshman in tackles last season with 122 and finished 10th overall in the nation. Grove, and returning starting safety Damon Magazu, will be counting on once again to lead the ECU defense.

THE JOHNSON ERA BEGINS
The Pirates will begin the 2012 season under the direction of first-year quarterback Rio Johnson. The junior won a heated offseason battle between senior Brad Wornick, sophomore Shane Carden and redshirt freshman Cody Keith. Johnson, who has drawn high praise from offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley for his arm strength, has completed 20 of his 29 career pass attempts for 157 yards, no TDs and one interception.
Aiding Johnson will be the return of several key skill players including Justin Hardy (64-658, 6 TDs) the Pirates leading receiver from a year ago, as well as Torrance Hunt (109-489, 2 TDs), the team’s top rusher.

‘BRIGHAM’ DOWN
After finishing last in the FBS in total defense and second-to-last in points allowed in 2010, East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell decided to shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense and visited Brigham Young University, where he played defensive back from 1987-1990, to learn more about the Cougars’ 3-4 scheme.
The result was a rise in play as the team jumped to the No. 56 ranking in total defense (376.3 ypg), a number that was greatly aided by a sturdy pass defense that ranked 20th in the nation yielding 202.2 yard per game, which is even more impressive when taking into account that Conference USA dominated by pass-happy spread teams.
After seeing such a big improvement last season, Mitchell once again booked a flight to Utah.
“We went right back to the source, we went right back to BYU,” Mitchell said. “They finished 13th in the nation in total defense and they played a competitive schedule. … They’ve gone to it for seven years and our first year matched number-wise some of the things that they were doing. Now we want to get to the next progression of the scheme.”