Nathan Summers, the Pirates beat writer for the Daily Reflector, talked a little East Carolina Pirates football with us as the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl nears..
Hustle Belt: ECU is coming off of four consecutive bowl losses (not in successive years). Is there anything they have preached in practice this last week as far as getting to the bowl game and winning one this year?
Nathan Summers: I think for East Carolina, the big thing, the thing that everyone talks about… before and after is the regular season finale against Marshall. In Conference-USA in the East Division that game was kind of targeted by both teams as a huge game, and it was for both teams but it was obviously...it was a big let down obviously for ECU to lose that. They thought they had the best team in the league and obviously they did not show that...I think all the guys realized as soon as that game ended, that like most teams in that division they were pretty grateful, especially the senior guys to have that one last game to play. In terms of doing anything different...obviously every team every year is completely different...a lot of the guys that played in the bowl game last year are still around, and they can definitely use that as motivation.
Some of the guys are still around from 2010, from the Military Bowl game they lost to Maryland. But in terms of the streak, you know I don't think guys have a lot of connection to bowl streaks just because obviously it started way back in 2008, was the first one in the string of four where they played in and lost, and they were conference champions at that point and they were again the following year, conference champions. But yeah, most of these guys are disconnected from that anyway because most of these guys were either freshman or weren't even around yet...I don't think they're doing anything different, but I do think that they do take a lot out of the Marshall game in terms of watching film and Ohio isn't the exact same team as Marshall but they do fit up, especially on offense a long way, so a lot of what they did wrong against Marshall they can try and do right against Ohio...and I think for most guys is probably big motivation for seniors and stuff and its a little easier to win.
HB: Something a lot of people know about East Carolina is the wide receiver/quarterback of Shane Carden and Justin Hardy, so what has it meant for East Carolina this year in terms of offensive success to have a duo like these two, and then have Vintavious Cooper, and guys like that to spread the ball among?
NS: I think the big thing this year, you know they have the Carden-Hardy connection obviously started last year and it was kind of a known commodity coming into this year. Both of those guys have played great this year with expectations already on them and you mentioned Cooper, it was obviously huge for him to come back...If ever there is a surprise 1000-yard rusher he was definitely it last year. Because coming in, he was a late-signee that year before and came in with no expectations whatsoever and rushed for a 1000 yards so, the way all those guys came back with expectations but, they've got a lot better balance this year.
They've also got a lot of production from receivers behind Hardy, but you know, when another guy is hot and suddenly you're not double-teaming Hardy...that's really a huge weapon, and any time you can get one-on-one match ups with him, Carden is the type of guy that is great at spotting those and Hardy is great at cashing those in at the other end. And it's really consistent, this offense is like that, this offense is a ton of plays at the line of scrimmage, you know they're going to try and run 90-100 plays a game and there are a ton of underneath throws and inside receivers or slant receiver like Hardy that’s obviously where he does most of his damage on those slants inside, even if he is in double coverage…and with a guy like Isaiah Jones the freshman coming in, it takes a lot of heat off of Justin and a ton of double teams away from him. That, with the balance from Cooper who comes into this game five yards away from another 1000-yard season, they have just had great balance on offense all year.
HB: I’ve gathered that the defense has not done too bad this year either (the Pirates are top 30 nationally in offense and total defense). Guys like, Damon Magazu sticks out, so what has the defense playing so well meant for the team’s success this year?
NS: It has been the biggest difference honestly. I mentioned the balance on offense but again they had a lot of known commodities coming back on offense and at the end of last year, after that New Orleans bowl the first thing that happened was Ruffin McNeill fired Bryan Mitchell, the defense coordinator and it was a really expect thing, and he was feeling the heat from the fans and from everywhere to make that move and he did…He brought a guy back that was the secondary coach here at ECU under the former head coach Skip Holtz, Rick Smith who came in as the defensive coordinator this year and really kind of changed the mentality, and I think that was a big thing…He also came in the door with a lot of talent to play with. Magazu was one of those guys definitely that you mentioned, the free safety. He’s really a field general kind of a guy. He make the calls back there, he sees a lot of things and changes a lot of plays, changes coverages on the fly. He has always been that kind of a player, and always had a knack for big interceptions. But really the guy that makes the defense go is the outside linebacker Derrell Johnson. He above and beyond probably anybody else, he has had the single biggest impact physically. He is a classic outside linebacker, had played defensive end his first two years. They moved him back when they switched to the 3-4 scheme, but he really is the guy who plays nearly every down on the line of scrimmage, usually as a rush end type of player than a true outside linebacker although he is a really talented guy, he can really play both positions very well. In terms of impact, he is the guy who makes the defense go. When teams have trouble stopping him on pass rush, they’re really going to have problem all day.
HB: When asked about comparing the Ohio offense with a team they played in the past, Ruffin McNeill compared Ohio to Old Dominion and their quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Maybe not so much about style, per se, what did you take out of that?
NS: …One of the things Rick Smith…immediately knew off the top of his head without really having watched any film on Ohio, just kind of knowing the way-all of college football, knew that Tettleton was that kind of player, not necessarily a Michael Vick kind of scrambler that will burn you on a 70-yard run but the guys that drive East Carolina defenses nuts seemingly all the time and that’s those guys like Cato at Marshall that, most of his scrambling was back-and-forth to buy time back there, he’s great at converting third downs…And (Heinicke)…really did give ECU’s defense lots of problems, and I think that was kind of a tough first assignment for them to start the year off…He was something, I do think they think that Tettleton is very much like that, so I think that they are most definitely taking this team seriously.
HB: What do you think the team can expect in terms of fandom, coming to St. Petersburg?
NS: ECU usually brings a ton of fans. They always do travel well, especially on the East Coast…It’s a large fan base, it’s one of the most isolated fan bases in this part of the country…When they leave Conference USA, they are going to lose the team that leads the league in attendance by about 25,000 fans every year. They usually average around 43-44,000 a game here at home, and they always do travel well…the in state games, but the bowl games pretty well too. I would…expect to see a pretty large contingent down there.