North Carolina continues the season against East Carolina on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Nathan Summers covers the Pirates for the Daily Reflector in Greenville. I asked him some questions about ECU.
Andrew Carter: ECU, I imagine, has always thought it could win these games against the likes of Virginia Tech and UNC. Has the dynamic changed, though, from could win to should win – especially after what the Pirates did the Tar Heels last season in Chapel Hill?
Nate Summers: I think even dating back to the Skip Holtz era, with wins over UNC, N.C. State, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boise St., etc., a new era of belief happened for ECU. But with McNeill, it likely has taken an even bigger step toward "should win" and obviously it helps to not just win, but win big in some of those games like against the Tar Heels and Wolfpack last season.
AC: A lot of UNC players seemed quite surprised that the Pirates had their way with Virginia Tech early on in that game. (And late, too.) We know that quarterback Shane Carden mostly had his way, and that the offense generated nearly 7 yards per play. What are some factors that go unnoticed and underappreciated when it comes to ECU's success on offense?
NS: While it might be cliche, it most certainly starts up front. Losing three long term starters from last year's line was the biggest looming offseason problem after last year's 10-3 finish. But The Pirates signed seven offensive linemen in February, including junior college standouts Quincy McKinney and Donate Levingston. Both are starting now and the line has been solid beyond a handful of procedure and holding penalties. It's also about receiver depth and no longer being one-dimensional with Justin Hardy. With Hardy facing heavy coverage all day in Blacksburg, Cam Worthy had a career day and Jimmy Williams and Bryce Williams also emerged with big games. Finally, the Pirates saw last season how much it helps to have greater balance between run and pass.
AC: If you go on recruiting rankings and those kinds of things, it's easy to conclude that UNC has more “talent” - however you define it – than the Pirates. It doesn't look like that on the field, though. What have been the keys for Ruffin McNeill and his staff to overcome their limitations in recruiting?
NS: The Pirates have been able to sell recruits on ECU's atmosphere, and McNeill always says, "If we can get them here, we know we have a chance to get them," meaning if he can get recruits to visit and see a home game and the overall football experience at ECU, he feels confident in landing them. Also, the chance to play right away with McNeill is very real. Receivers Isaiah Jones and Davon Graysosn both made big splashes last season as rookies (seven played overall), and already this year, true freshman receiver Trevon Brown (two TDs) and tailback Anthony Scott (TD) have both made big plays.
AC: The preseason rub against ECU was that the defense would struggle because of what it lost from last season. But that hasn't been the case, really – at least not yet. Why not?
NS: This year's starters are generally faster and more physical than last year's group, and so far injuries have gone the Pirates' way. The potential for danger lies with depth. By and large, the many first-year full-time starters on the defense have played well, but coordinator Rick Smith is always quick to point out that the Pirates are one defensive injury away from trouble this season.
AC: What kind of atmosphere are you expecting at Dowdy-Ficklin Stadium on Saturday and, for my loyal readers making the trip, where should they find a pregame bite in Greenville if they're not tailgating?
NS: The stadium atmosphere, especially for sold-out in-state games, is as good as anywhere I've been. As for cuisine, it depends on what type of atmosphere you seek. Naturally, Greenville's postcard kind of place is B's Barbecue (found on, yes, B's Barbecue Road), and Parker's is also one of the long-standing barbecue purveyors. The Fifth Street uptown area offers great game-watching environments and bar-restaurants like Varsity Club, Peasant's and Winslow's. A short drive away is Christie's Europub, a more laid back, out-of-the-way place on Jarvis Street near campus, and visitors can even get great Sushi at Wasabi 88 (Fire Tower Road) or upscale American dishes at the University Chophouse (Evans Street).
Thank you, Nathan, for your time.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter .