Florida Gators Season Preview: Game Two, East Carolina Pirates

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Florida’s first game of the season should be no problem. It’s what happens in games two through twelve that will define their season.

And that stretch starts with a (sort of) familiar foe.


New Mexico State Aggies


Coach: Ruffin McNeil, 6th year (37-27)

2014 record: 8-5, lost Birmingham Bowl to Florida

Last meeting: Florida 28, East Carolina 20 (2015)

All time series: Florida, 2-0

The skinny: East Carolina is a respectable American Conference team that’s found some success over the past several years. The problem is that the Pirates lose several of their key offensive players from last year’s 8-5 team, so 2015 figures to be a rebuilding year for them. But Ruffin McNeill has built a real program at ECU, which means that they’re a legitimate threat to slap you silly if you mess around no matter what type of year it is for them. Just ask Virginia Tech about what happened the week after they knocked off eventual national champion Ohio State 35-21 in Columbus.

Offensive breakdown

Returning starters: 6

Ruffin McNeill is a Mike Leach student through and through; thus, you may see some resemblance of Leach’s high flying offense. But while the style of offense will be exciting, the offense suffers heavy losses: QB Shane Carden, leading rusher Breon Allen, leading receiver Justin Hardy and second leading receiver Cam Worthy all need to be replaced.

But that’s not to say there isn’t any talent waiting to step up. Kurt Benkert, Blake Kemp and Cody Keith will battle for the starting QB job, and while Benkert appears to be ahead now, this will be something to watch for in the weeks leading up to the game. Benkert throws a very nice deep ball, so Florida’s secondary better be ready. Allen will be missed in the running game, but Chris Hairston, Marquez Grayson and Anthony Scott combined for over 1,000 yards on the ground last year despite playing in a pass happy offense and despite all playing behind Allen. And the offensive line should be solid again, returning four of five starters from last year.

UPDATE August 31: An injury to Kurt Benkert means that Blake Kemp, a dual threat QB, will be the starting quarterback against Florida.

The problems for ECU could come with their receiving corps. They do get their third leading receiver, Isaiah Jones, back. But after that, the WR depth chart drops off into a deep abyss in terms of production. Again, there’s plenty of talent between Devon Grayson, Jimmy Williams (who had a 66 yard catch and run in the Birmingham Bowl) and Trevon Brown, but the contributions they’ve made to this point has been minimal.

Offensive Grade: C+. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly some talent on this roster. But assuming the Florida defense is half of what it’s hyped up to be, they’ll give ECU fits all day.

Defensive breakdown

Returning starters: 4

Leave it to East Carolina to let a Will Muschamp offense actually look good. In last year’s Birmingham Bowl, Florida hit four plays of 20 yards or longer, including a bubble screen to Ahmad Fulwood that went 86 yards for the knockout punch touchdown. That defense loses seven starters (though it does return several key reserves) from a rather shaky unit in 2014, and thus has a lot of work to do.

The good news for ECU is that their defensive line should be an easy fix. Their top defensive lineman, Fred Presley, is back. Presley recorded six sacks last year for the Pirates and accounted for 25 tackles. The Pirates also get Terrell Stanley back after he missed all of 2014 from injuries suffered in a car accident last February. For a guy that only rated as a two star prospect coming out of high school, Stanley is a force. He led ECU in 2013 with seven sacks. ECU also gets back key contributors Johnathan White and K’Hadree Hooker.

But after that, the Pirates are in trouble. Their top two linebackers from last year need to be replaced, as do two more starters in their secondary. The Pirates do have a very good corner returning in Josh Hawkins, and a very good linebacker in Zeek Bigger, but after that, they’ll need to dig in order to find their new starters. Linebackers you may see playing include Montese Overton and Dyann Pratt; in the secondary, watch for Domonique Lennon and DeShaun Amos.

Defensive Grade: C-. ECU’s defense isn’t terrible, but it’s not what Ruffin McNeill will be banking on to win him some games. Florida should be fine on offense.

East Carolina wins if… they hit big plays and get some help. ECU only hit seven passing plays of more than 40 yards last year, but they better fix that if they want to beat Florida. They aren’t going to win with just short and intermediate routes. And of course, Florida is the more talented team, so some major botchery will be required in order for the Pirates to pull the upset in the Swamp.

Florida wins if… they take East Carolina seriously. They’re more talented up and down the roster. The extent is much lesser than the week one game against New Mexico State, but the principle remains. Florida’s offense can win the game however they so choose.

Three things to watch for:

1) This is the first real test for either side, but particularly Florida’s defense. ECU runs a much faster paced offense than New Mexico State will, and the talent level between the Pirates and the Aggies is incomparable. Vernon Hargreaves will get to face his first real threat from an opposing wide receiver and the front seven will face a serviceable offensive line for the first time all year (and it’s not like Florida had a great line for them to practice against in the offseason, either. Thanks, Muschamp.)

2) I’m also anxious to see how Austin Hardin does in the kicking game. He was extremely inconsistent last year, missing a pair of makable field goals against FSU in a 24-19 loss, but nailed the game winner from 50 yards out against Tennessee. This is the first game in which there is a legitimate possibility he might be needed- not necessarily to win the game in triple overtime, but maybe with a 24-10 lead with four minutes to go- and it would be nice to see him connect with at least some pressure on him.

3) Because of the general lack of a threat New Mexico State poses, Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier will have no need to do anything fancy. The Gators can simply bully the Aggies around with their backups. But the gloves are almost certainly coming off in game two. Mac figures to be hiding something from NMSU so ECU can’t accurately scout and analyze his team. Or he’ll see something, have a stroke of genius, and update the offense on the fly a la Dan Mullen (and I’ll write about this in greater detail next week). Whatever it is, we’ll be seeing something new against the Pirates.

East Carolina overall grade: C+. East Carolina’s not a bad team by any means. They certainly aren’t the joke New Mexico State is. But you need to be better than “not a bad team” and “not the joke Florida’s weakest opponent in four years is” to realistically have a shot in the Swamp against a non Muschamp team. And that goes double at night.

Overview: Among those who cover lower level conferences, East Carolina is becoming a trendy dark horse pick to win the American Conference. The talent is there, Ruffin McNeill is a very smart man and has proven more than capable of rebuilding. But asking the new-look Pirates to come into Gainesville in the second week of the season, before they can really gain some experience playing together, and beat a vengeful Florida team is asking for too much.

The main difference between the two teams is that Florida has SEC experience in most parts of their lineup (DeMarcus Robinson, Antonio Morrison, Jonathan Bullard, Kelvin Taylor, Hargreaves, etc.). And where they don’t, they have high levels of talent, like at the QB position. Both teams are breaking in new QB’s, but Florida’s new QB (most likely Will Grier) has ten times the arm ECU’s does, better accuracy, and a higher level of awareness and intelligence.

So this game will be like New Mexico State in the sense that Florida’s more talented, albeit to a much lesser extent. ECU will not face a defense as good as Florida’s all year, and that will make the difference. The Pirates will need more offensive horsepower than they’ve got to pull off this daring nighttime robbery in the Swamp.

Projection: Florida 34, East Carolina 14

12 thoughts on “Florida Gators Season Preview: Game Two, East Carolina Pirates

  1. Great job as always, Neil. I don’t know why you think Florida won’t hit the mid 40’s because ECU’s defense is really bad based on my memory of last year’s bowl game (not just personnel wise, but scheming too). But I enjoyed this anyway. Keep them coming.

  2. “The Pirates will need more offensive horsepower than they’ve got to pull off this daring nighttime robbery in the Swamp.”

    Tell Missouri that.

    Oh right… Muschamp’s gone. Ha, I have to adjust my expectations of night games in the Swamp accordingly.

  3. I’m going to this game. Should be a good one. You had it right at the beginning though, ECU may lose lots of players from last year but McNeill is a good enough coach to have his team ready for a fight. He’s a Mike Leach protege. Those guys all put out good teams.

  4. We lead ECU 2-0? I know we beat them in last year’s bowl game, but when was the first game?

  5. I don’t think the Gators’ offense is going to have that easy of a time. ECU’s defensive line is (as you admitted) not that bad, and Florida’s offensive like is going to be very young and inexperienced, however naturally talented they may be. I still think Florida ultimately wins, but it’s gonna be a close game.

  6. I’d be wary of predicting anything for this Florida team. Why you continue to list Antonio Morrison is also a mystery, since it’s very doubtful he’ll play at all this year, much less against East Carolina. I also don’t understand how you can extoll the virtues of Will Grier. He hasn’t played a down, so there is zero evidence that he possesses any attribute you list and, by the way, he may not even be UF’s starter, he has already been beaten out by Treon Harris and there is zero evidence that he won’t be second fiddle to Harris again. I also saw UF’s game with East Carolina, and to say that UF has vastly superior talent has to be based on reality, and I didn’t see this vast gulf you speak of. I, and I hope I’m wrong, think you, and many others, are greatly overestimating the talent level of Florida. I think we’ll see that UF has been mediocre, not because of poor coaching, but because other teams are just better, and have better players. It all starts at quarterback, and I’m not ready to crown Grier, or anyone else, until they actually do something. UF has sucked at quarterback for the past five year, and both Brantley and Driskel were more highly touted than Grier or Harris. I just think it’s better to temper expectations until there is some real evidence that UF has better players than what we have seen on the field.

    1. Coaches have said he could play in the opener, pending the rest of his recovery. But his target date seems to be the ECU game. You’re right, his status is very much up in the air, but the coaches seem confident that he’ll be a major contributor early barring a setback in his recovery.

      I never said Grier would be a Heisman Trophy candidate or anything. But he does have all those traits I listed, as he proved in high school. OK, so maybe the competition he faced wasn’t the greatest, but arm strength is arm strength, and intelligence is intelligence. I do expect the tougher defenses UF will face to give him trouble, but not ECU.

      Florida is absolutely more talented than ECU across the board this year. Last year, meh, it was kind of close (I’d still argue Florida, though). But given what ECU loses and what Florida returns… sorry, but the Gators are certainly more talented than ECU. That’s not to say talent automatically guarantees a win, though.

      Brantley was thrown into the wrong system to begin with. I don’t think he “sucked” necessarily. Driskel, well, I don’t know about him. He had numerous chances to come through in big games, and didn’t; he also had numerous chances to blow games, and he did.

      And as for tempering expectations… this is East Carolina. The expectation is to beat them. I haven’t picked Florida to win the national championship or anything.

      1. I agree that Florida should beat East Carolina, but I don’t feel overconfident. The “Swamp” hasn’t held any terror for an opposing team for a long time now, so I discount Florida’s home field advantage until UF starts winning games there. The oddsmakers have made Florida an underdog in every significant game this year, seven in all. That makes me wary of even East Carolina and Kentucky.There is just too many question marks regarding this team, and that includes coaching. That could change very easily if UF has a godd quarterback. If you’ve got a good quarterback, you’ve got a chance> If Grier or Harris becomes one, UF can have a good year. If not, a losing record is again possible, as seen by Vegas posting the Gators as underdogs in the majority of games.

        1. All of tbose are good points. Im not over looking any team. Although vegas odd maker’s are about as clueless as the rest of the world right now and as far as home field advantage…. We will always have that. No matter who comes in with 88 thousand screaming fans will get a lil shaken

  7. I’m concerned about how much worse you think ECU will be this year compared to last year. It seems like a recipe for an upset. Even in the Swamp.

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