EL PASO, Texas - The East Carolina Pirates are in a very pivotal year and the future of head coach Ruffin McNeil could depend on it. McNeil has compiled a 12-14 record in his two years at the helm of the Pirates. ECU had been on the rise and need a solid season to get back on track. This is a transition year on offense and if the defense of this off season continues, the defense could end up being the backbone of the Pirates in 2012.
No 1: Does ECU have a favorable schedule? Yes and no. The Pirates will play four of their first six games on the road, including at South Carolina, at Southern Miss and at North Carolina. For a conference stacked with tough teams, ECU gets off fairly easy in C-USA. Outside of Southern Miss in week three, ECU has Memphis, UAB, Marshall and Tulane. Compare that to UTEP's schedule and it looks easy.
No. 2: Who will replace school record setting QB Dominique Davis? There is a big hole to fill on the offensive side of the ball for the Pirates left by Davis. The battle between Rio Johnson and Shane Carden is not over yet but there are indications that Rio Johnson will win that spot. Johnson has the experience to take that next step and lead the Pirates. The bigger question now, is will he step up and lead the team? We will know by the UTEP game.
No. 3: Will the 3-4 defense continue to improve? With what has happened in the preseason scrimmages, all signs are pointing to yes. The defense will be led by senior tackle Michael Brooks, a huge force up front at 6'3, 313 pounds. The line backing core will be solid and led by Jeremy Grove, who finished eighth in tackles last year in C-USA with 122.
No. 4: Will the recent arrest of WR Danny Webster affect the Pirates? Not really, Webster was not going to shoulder the load rather he was expected to only be a contributor. Justin Hardy should handle more of the receiving workload seeing he held last year's team highs (64 receptions and 658 yards receiving). However ECU lost Lance Lewis to graduation but Reese Wiggins who lead the team with 14.9 yards per reception should fill in nicely.
No. 5: What should the Miners expect September 29th? Outside of playing in Tulsa, this could be the Miners toughest C-USA road game. ECU will be UTEP's first C-USA game and a lot depends on the health of the Miners after the brutal first four games. If the Miners are healthy, they have a shot at sneaking into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and getting a victory but that is going to be a tall order to fill.
Chad Middleton, also the producer for KROD's SportsTalk, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at @otsshow. Make sure to follow Miner Illustrated on Twitter at @minermaniac for more up-to-date news and information about UTEP.