East Carolina Football

ECU gives credibility to notion that football recruiting rankings are subjective

bhaines@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2014 

— The clock had dipped under four minutes when East Carolina receiver Lance Ray caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from Shane Carden to put the exclamation point on the Pirates’ 55-31 victory against North Carolina, their first win at Kenan Stadium in 38 years.

Senior fullback Jimmy Booth walked over to coach Ruffin McNeill, tapped him on the shoulder and proclaimed, “Coach, they’re just not built like us.”

He had no idea how right he was.

The Tar Heels, with NFL prospects such as tight end Eric Ebron and left tackle James Hurst, along with a 2013 recruiting class ranked in the top 50 nationally by Scouts.com and Rivals.com, are not built like East Carolina.

Neither is N.C. State. Last year the Wolfpack’s class was ranked No. 47 by Rivals and 53rd by Scout. They also lost to a Pirates team whose class rankings never go below the 50s. (ECU’s 2013 recruiting class was ranked 93rd by Rivals and 65th by Scout.)

East Carolina (10-3, 6-2 Conference USA) finished with only its second single-season double-digit win total and beat Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl for its first postseason victory since 2007.

With road wins against the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack, the Pirates staked their claim to be mentioned with Duke as the top football team in the state.

A billboard displayed the Pirates’ 42-28 victory against N.C. State with a caption beside it that read “ARRRR STATE!” located inside the state’s borders.

But do recruits agree?

The scoreboard tells one story, but the Pirates are still playing catch-up on the recruiting trail. ECU has received zero commitments from any of Rivals’ top-35 prospects in the state. Just one of the school’s 21 commitments, Kernersville Glenn defensive end Yiannis Bowden, has a ranking of three stars.

Conference key part of recruiting

While prospect rankings are debatable, it’s hard to argue conference realignment handed a distinct recruiting advantage to schools from automatic qualifying conferences.

Donnie Kirkpatrick, ECU’s recruiting coordinator and inside receivers coach, said he’s noticed players are drawn to the conference as much as the team.

“We kind of joke about it,” he said. “There’s some of the bottom feeders (in BCS leagues) ... chanting out the conference name as if they had something to do with the success of its top teams ... There’s just such a big thing about the conferences.

“…. When this thing opened up a couple of years ago and people started jumping conferences it caused this little new trend of what league you’re in, like it’s a whole different sport or something. So we’re kind of on the outside looking in on that one sometimes, and they won’t invite us into the party there.”

The 2013 season was East Carolina’s last in Conference USA. Next year, the Pirates will play in the newly formed American Athletic Conference, which is composed mostly of former C-USA members who jumped to the Big East.

ECU is hoping the move improves its credibility among elite recruits.

“The new conference is exciting and everybody has gotten a good lift out of it. It gives us something new to sell. It is having a positive impact and I think it’s a step in an upward direction in that we will have a lot better TV contract. I think that’s the first thing that we’re able to sell as far as what the new league is doing for us. We’re going to have pretty much every game on some type of ESPN,” Kirkpatrick said. “The new league is helping us. We have some more TV exposure and things like that. We’re expanding our geographical area a little bit, but there’s still that little (conference) asterisk that we’re fighting.”

According to Mark Lindsay, who has worked for Rivals’ PirateIllustrated.com since 2005, the conference move may not have had the ripple effect in recruiting the school had hoped for, but it certainly hasn’t hurt.

“It’s kind of hard to quantify just how much the new league has affected recruiting,” Lindsay said. “But I can tell you this: if East Carolina had stayed in Conference USA that would have been a negative situation recruiting-wise moving forward.”

UNC and N.C. State have commitments from 19 of the state’s top 35 players. Duke picked up two and Wake Forest appears close to landing one of the premier receivers, No. 21-ranked Jalyn Barbour from Monroe.

The message is: When it comes to recruiting, the Pirates still can’t overcome the hurdle of not being a member of a “power conference.”

“That’s the one major obstacle that we have identified,” Kirkpatrick said. “ … If a kid has a high ranking it is hard for us to go in and get that kid over some of those other schools, but right now it’s really all coming down to the conference.”

Numbers sometimes lie

Then there’s the matter of just who exactly is handing out these stars and how they come about that conclusion.

“I think the people that rank these recruits don’t know who’s a good player and who’s a bad player for the most part, and I don’t mean that as an insult in any way. That’s not their job. Their job is to write this up and publicize it,” Kirkpatrick said. “They’re getting their information based on where these kids go and who’s interested in these kids. So if Alabama is after a player he’s going to be ranked as a high player. They may not have even seen this young man play, but if they hear Alabama wanted him they would automatically assume ‘man, Alabama wants this kid, he’s a great player.’ That’s just the way some of that works.

“Some of our kids that do commit here are probably not ranked high because they’re coming to East Carolina. If they were to turn around and flip – and I’ve seen this happen – if someone commits to us and is a two-star kid and then for some reason flips and goes to another school in a bigger conference they will get a star added to him.”

Kirkpatrick pointed to former ECU running back Chris Johnson, who arrived in Greenville as a two-star recruit before becoming a ranked player. Johnson was a first-round NFL draft pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2008 and in 2009 became one of only seven players in NFL history to rush for 2,000 or more yards in a season.

While the Pirates’ recruiting classes might not have the same wattage as their in-state rivals, that hasn’t stopped them from winning games.

Last year’s class, ranked 93rd, was one of ECU’s most productive groups in program history.

Receiver Isiah Jones (62 receptions, 604 yards, 5 TDs), nose tackle Demetri McGill (6 tackles) and linebacker Dayon Pratt (6 tackles) were named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team; and receiver Devon Grayson caught 18 passes for 176 yards and four touchdowns before suffering a knee injury midway through the season.

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