Three reasons ECU football is picked first in C-USA: Carden, Cooper, Hardy

csmith@newsobserver.comAugust 27, 2013 

  • Triple threat

    ECU features three of the top playmakers in Conference-USA. Here is how they rank among returning players:

    PlayerPos. Yds.Rk.
    Shane CardenQB3,1162
    Vintavious CooperRB1,0492
    Justin HardyWR1,1053

— Expectations are a funny thing. Last season, East Carolina was picked to finish third in Conference USA’s East Division preseason standings despite losing quarterback Dominique Davis and returning only nine starters.

This year, coach Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates are the East division favorite after an 8-5 season (7-1 C-USA). Much of those expectations come from the return of the three-headed offensive monster: quarterback Shane Carden, running back Vintavious Cooper and receiver Justin Hardy.

“The sky really is the limit for our team this season,” Carden said. “We did a lot of great things last season, and we come into this year with even more experience. But like coach Ruff always says, we can’t listen to the outside noise.”

That outside noise has been loud this offseason. Along with being chosen as the preseason favorite, Hardy and Cooper were tabbed as preseason first-team at their respective positions.

While Carden wasn’t named the starter last year until the third game, he still accounted for 31 of the Pirates 45 touchdowns. The junior quarterback comes into the season looking to prove that he, too, should have been on the preseason first team.

Carden passed for 3,116 yards – more than he threw for in his entire high school career – Cooper contributed 1,049 yards on the ground, and Hardy did it all, leading the team with 1,105 yards receiving, 11 touchdowns and 175 yards on punt returns.

“This is going to be such an exciting season offensively for me in particular because the players we have make me look good,” Carden said. “We’ve got so many weapons that we can go to, and when one player maybe isn’t performing that well, there are others that can pick them up.”

Not only does it return those offensive weapons, ECU has 16 returning starters – second-most in the FBS. Eight are on offense, with Carden, Hardy and Cooper being the most notable.

The defense appears just as stacked, led by the linebackers. Jeremy Grove has become a vocal leader in his first two seasons, leading the team in tackles both seasons with 122 in 2011 and 83 in 2012 and registered 4.5 tackles for loss last season as well.

Grove is paired with senior Derrell Johnson, ECU’s lone player on the C-USA first-team defense. Johnson led the Pirates with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

“The linebackers are one of our strongest suits,” McNeill said. “Jeremy is one of those players that is always around the ball. ... Derrell is that he leads by example, he plays as hard as anyone I’ve ever coached and he’s probably one of the smartest players on this team.”

The Pirates still have obstacles to overcome. They lost two receivers, 6-foot-8 Justin Jones and Jabril Solomon, who were declared ineligible for academic reasons. Yet the goal remains: win the league title in their final year in the league.

“It’s a part of our vision,” McNeill told the Greenville Reflector. “The standard is high here, so we expect that as a team, a unit, an organization and a program. To play extra games is always a part of that vision. This team is doing a good job of attacking each day and making sure we win today.”

Smith: 919-829-8941; Twitter: @RCorySmith

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