GREENVILLE — East Carolina is bringing its high-scoring offense to a new conference, along with the goal of topping what was the program’s best season in two decades.
The Pirates, 10-3 last year, have left Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference with a returning quarterback, a record-chasing receiver and a defense aiming to build of last season’s improvement. They’ll also get a few chances to face power-conference opponents early in coach Ruffin McNeill’s fifth year.
Senior quarterback Shane Carden, a 4,000-yard passer, said this year’s success depends on the Pirates’ mental approach.
“I believe this team can win every game on this schedule,” Carden said. “At the same time, I believe we can lose every game on this schedule. This team will never be good enough to just show up to a game and just play. We have to prepare like it’s a championship game every week — it doesn’t matter who we play.”
East Carolina won 10 games for the first time since 1991, including two road romps against Atlantic Coast Conference programs North Carolina and North Carolina State.
The offense averaged a school-record 40.2 points, with receiver Justin Hardy entering the year on pace to set the Bowl Subdivision record for career catches.
As for the defense, it allowed its lowest scoring and yardage totals under McNeill while forcing 24 takeaways. It lost eight starters, though some of the players inheriting starting jobs have already played significant reps.
Here are five things to watch for the Pirates this season:
HARDY’S MARCH: Hardy was once an overlooked recruit and walk-on working on the scout team. He enters his senior year as the focus of the Pirates’ attack. Hardy had 114 catches last year, and his 266 career catches put him 84 shy of the career FBS record set by Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles. “I don’t even know how many passes I’m getting until after the game,” he said, “so I really don’t think about it.”
OFFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT: Carden said the Pirates’ attack needs to move faster than it did last year or “it won’t be good enough.” Six starters are back from that unit. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said it will take time to gel, though he added, “If we reach our potential, we’re going to be pretty tough to stop.”
NEW RUNNER: Among the changes on offense: a new running back. Vintavious Cooper was one of C-USA’s top rushers with 1,193 yards. Senior Breon Allen was the No. 2 rusher with 311 yards and is listed on the preseason depth chart alongside junior Chris Hairston (186 yards).
UP FRONT: The defensive line is a concern. The Pirates had already lost lineman Terrell Stanley (seven sacks) due to an offseason car wreck. Then fellow lineman Terry Williams suffered a knee injury in practice this week, with team spokesman Tom McClellan saying Williams is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. That leaves senior Chrishon Rose as the lone lineman who started more than one game last year in the 3-4 scheme.
NONCONFERENCE PLAY: The Pirates’ always-tough nonconference schedule has UNC visiting Greenville, while ECU travels to play ACC program Virginia Tech and South Carolina out of the Southeastern Conference. The three games come on consecutive weekends in September, giving ECU an early shot to build some buzz.