Pirates gear up for home opener

Published 2:11 pm Thursday, September 3, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS FRESH START: A new season of Pirate football begins on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Kick-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.

FRESH START: A new season of Pirate football begins on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Kick-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.

GREENVILLE — The 2015 East Carolina football season kicks off this Saturday with a much different feel than just a few weeks ago.

It was meant to be the season in which quarterback-in-waiting Kurt Benkert finally took the keys to the Pirate offense and showed what he could do with the cannon arm that has long been a topic of discussion in the ECU community.

That plan changed when Benkert injured his right knee last week in practice and had to be shut down for the season. Head coach Ruffin McNeill left no questions as to who his quarterback would be to open the season during Monday’s press conference.

“Blake Kemp is the quarterback. He was the backup quarterback, so he’s next in line,” McNeill said. “Cody Keith is back at practice and James Summers has also joined us.”

The Pirates open up against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Towson — each of the last four season openers for ECU have come against FCS teams.

The Tigers are coming off of a 4-8 (2-6 Colonial Athletic Conference) campaign in 2014, but hold returning impact players at many positions.

Quarterback Connor Frazier threw for 1,499 yards as a junior and added 475 yards on the ground. The Tigers’ rushing attack will be led by Darius Victor, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark as a sophomore. McNeill spoke highly of the 5-foot-8 tailback in his weekly press conference.

“Darius Victor is a running back we saw last year on film who has really good quickness, runs mad and averages 5-plus (yards) per carry,” said McNeill Monday. “He has good quickness after contact and catches the ball well up field.”

The Tigers lost their top two receivers from a year ago, but the addition of Jacquille Veii will soften the blow. Veii was an up-and-coming halfback and receiver for Maryland last season before choosing to transfer to Towson late last spring.

On the defensive side, Towson is returning five of its seven top tacklers from a year ago — all with more than 60 tackles. Senior cornerback Donnell Lewis racked up 85 tackles and five deflected passes last season and drew the attention of McNeill while reviewing game film.

“Donnell Lewis stands out among their (defensive backs). He’s really an active, instinctive player and makes a lot of plays,” McNeill said.

The Pirates’ front seven will be crucial in stopping the run-heavy Towson offense. Seniors Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton will play inside and outside linebackers, respectively, on the strong side. Sophomores Jordan Williams and Joe Allely will line up on the weak side.

The return of Terrell Stanley at defensive end is much welcomed to an ECU team that lost strong pass rushers from last year’s team. Demetri McGill and Johnathan White will start at tackle and end, respectively.

McNeill has seen Bigger emerge as a leader on the defense. Bigger has traditionally been a quiet player and a leader by example — something McNeill thinks is beneficial for his team.

“Zeek will do it by his play. We understand that with Zeek. One thing you don’t want to do is get out of character because then you’re not yourself,” said McNeill. “Zeek will lead by example, but he has a strong enough voice.”

Towson, the 2013 FCS runners-up, will look to its run-heavy attack and new-look 3-4 defense, after running a 4-3 in years past, to push past the Pirates, but the atmosphere of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and ECU’s dominance in the trenches may be too much for the Tigers to overcome. The game kicks off in Greenville at 6 p.m.