For East Carolina, the road to bowl game redemption is underway. After going 5-7 in 2011, the Pirates missed their first bowl game in six years, and first under coach Ruffin McNeill.
The 2012 season officially begins this afternoon in Greenville.
In the weeks that lead to the Sept. 1 opener against Appalachian State, the Pirates have several questions to answer. Here are the five most pressing:
1. Who will replace Dominique Davis at quarterback?
That’s the big question: 2011 backup Rio Johnson, senior Brad Wornick, sophomore Shane Carden and redshirt freshman Cody Keith are competing for snaps.
Johnson, a rising junior, served as Davis’ backup in 2011, but only appeared in four games and recorded 157 yards passing. He has yet to throw a touchdown in his career.
Wornick, a former walk-on, was the backup in 2010 but fell behind Johnson last season. He is the most game-experienced quarterback on the roster, having played in five games in 2010 including the fourth quarter of the 2010 Military Bowl.
In any case, the Pirates will have an inexperienced quarterback at the helm.
2. Will the secondary hold up?
It’s no secret that the Pirates’ strength should be their defense. Like the Pirates’ offense, the unit returns seven starters. Only one, however, is in the secondary.
Junior free safety Damon Magazu will lead the secondary in his second year as a starter, but the loss of three time All-Conference USA cornerback Emanuel Davis, cornerback Derek Blacknall and strong safety Bradley Jacobs leave gaping holes in the unit. Senior Jacobi Jones is expected to help fill the void at the wide-side cornerback spot along with junior college transfer Adonis Armstrong, while fifth-year senior Leonard Paulk will start at boundary cornerback after waiting behind Davis for three years. Sophomore Lamar Ivey will compete with junior Chip Thompson for the starting strong safety spot.
3. Could Justin Hardy have a breakout season?
As a redshirt freshman last season, the Vanceboro native led the Pirates with 64 catches and 658 yards, also adding six touchdowns despite missing two games to injury. Hardy was named to the C-USA all-freshman team. If he’s healthy, he should be a valuable weapon for whoever emerges as the Pirates’ starting quarterback. The question is: Can he develop the same chemistry with his new quarterback as he had with Dominique Davis?
4. What’s going to happen with the defensive line?
The veteran defensive line suffered a setback July 19 when sophomore Terry Williams was suspended indefinitely for a drug related arrest. Williams played in 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman, recording 31 tackles and forcing two fumbles. His absence could impact the Pirates’ depth and result in extended playing time for preseason All-C-USA selection Michael Brooks, who has been prone to knee injuries throughout his career.
Junior end Matt Milner joins Brooks as the other returning starter from last year, while juniors Lee Pegues and Justin Dixon are expected to compete for the starting position at right end.
5. How good can the linebackers be?
This group is a strength. All four starters return. Redshirt sophomore Jeremy Grove earned multiple national freshman awards last season and led the Pirates with 122 tackles – 42 more than the next Pirate. He’s a preseason All-Conference U.S.A. selection and could anchor one of the program’s best defenses in the last decade.
Junior Kyle Tudor and senior Daniel Drake will compete for the inside spot alongside Grove, while sophomore Maurice Falls will remain at outside linebacker after making his first start in the 2011 season finale against Marshall. Junior Derrell Johnson will start at right outside linebacker.
The Pirates finished 56th in total defense and 97th in scoring defense last season – both rankings that leave room for improvement in 2012.