This week in our Q&A piece we got a chance to talk with Stephen Igoe of HoistTheColours.net, 247sports site that covers ECU sports. A big thanks goes out Stephen for taking some time out to answer a questions for us. Make sure to follow the at Hoist The Colours for everything ECU heading into tomorrow's game.
MinerRush: Both Rio Johnson and Shane Carden have spent time under center in the first 4 weeks of the season. Should we assume Carden will start? And what are your thoughts about the quarterback play so far for the Pirates?
Stephen Igoe: Carden will start. Johnson started the first two games of the year against Appalachian State and South Carolina, but struggled mightily with turnovers and accuracy before being pulled in the second half against the Gamecocks. Carden, a native of Houston, Texas, has started the past two games, both on the road in tough environments. While Carden hasn't put up big numbers, he's done a very good job of taking care of the ball and giving his team a chance to win games. He's the type of player that can make something happen out of nothing with his feet. As just a sophomore, he's only going to get better with game experience and looks to be the future at quarterback for the Pirates.
MR: The run game has been a bit of an issue for you all, but you've found some recent success in Vintavious Cooper (5.5 ypc). What should the Miners expect out of the run game this weekend?
SI: ECU employs a running back by committee with four separate backs that split carries. Cooper has been the most impressive runner through the early part of the season, though he's still improving his pass protection after transferring in from junior college, a place where he spent the majority of his time as his team's starting quarterback. The other backs you will see regularly in the ECU backfield are Reggie Bullock, Michael Dobson and Hunter Furr. Bullock is the speedster, Furr is the power back, and Dobson is probably the most balanced back of the bunch.
The Pirates racked up nearly 160 yards on the ground last week if you take away Carden's lost yardage from a season-high seven sacks, so the coaching staff believes it has this unit headed in the right direction after some early struggles.
MR: Besides, Cooper and wide receiver Justin Hardy, what are a couple of names on the offensive side of the ball that could be potential playmakers for the team on Saturday?
SI: The key word there is definitely potential. The Pirates have plenty of talent, especially in the receiving corps. The problem is that Carden has yet to establish a consistent rapport with anyone outside of Hardy due to his lack of experience. That said, I'll give you four names to keep an eye on. The first is tight end/inside wide receiver Justin Jones, a 6-8, 258-pound target whose career has been derailed by injuries thus far. He's a junior that does most of his damage in the red zone with his size. He's a nearly impossible matchup to defend for a linebacker, safety or corner based on size alone.
Another inside guy to keep an eye on is sophomore Danny Webster, who's still working his way back from off-season knee surgery. As a true freshman last season, Webster reeled in 43 receptions for 418 yards, but has only caught five balls so far this year.
A dangerous target with the ball in the hands is outside receiver Reese Wiggins. Wiggins, a speedster with sub-4.4 speed, broke out at the end of last season with game-changing touchdowns on some long, explosive catch-and-runs. Unfortunately, he's yet to get the ball in space this season with just eight grabs for 68 yards.
Finally, senior Andrew Bodenheimer is the team's most consistent wide out besides Hardy. He's just a gamer and the team's possession receiver that always seems to make plays when the Pirates look his way.
MR: Who are the defensive leaders so far for the Pirates?
SI: The defense starts with Jeremy Grove, a 2011 Freshman All-American that racked up over 120 tackles as one of the team's starting inside linebackers a year ago. Grove is off to a fast start again this season with a team-leading 31 tackles, including 3.5 TFL and two forced fumbles through three games.
Up front, senior NT/DE Michael Brooks is the glue on the defensive line. The All-Conference USA performer missed two games with a knee injury earlier this season, but is now back and was dominant as usual in his return at UNC last weekend. Also one to watch on the defensive line is sophomore NT Terry Williams, a massive 6-1, 324-pound monster in the middle of the defense.
In the secondary, Damon Magazu is the one returning starter at free safety and is a preseason All-Conference USA selection. Magazu ranks second on the team in tackles with 26 stops through four games.
MR: What are your thoughts on what you've seen with the team through the first four weeks of the season?
SI: Honestly, I'm as unsure about how good this team is now as I was at the beginning of the season. The schedule ECU has played makes it really tough to gauge the team. Appalachian State is an FCS school, so you have to take that game with a grain of salt. South Carolina is, plain and simple, an elite team that would dominate any team in C-USA. At first the Southern Miss game looked like a huge win for ECU, but now not so much. And lastly, UNC is a team that always seems to get in ECU's heads no matter how good or bad they are.
That said, going into the season, many believed if ECU survived the first four games with a 2-2 record, then the Pirates could have a strong season based on the second half of their schedule. That remains to be seen, and if it is to happen, ECU must shore up a lot of areas.
First and foremost, the pass defense has been flat out atrocious thus far. Teams have passed on ECU's secondary with ease. The pass rush has been decent, but far too inconsistent with a young defensive backfield that's still learning to adjust to Divison I football. Secondly, the offense, which is supposed to be this coaching staff's strong point, has a lot of improving to do. The good news is that the foundation is there. There are plenty of talented and skillful position players. Now the quarterback just has to get into a rhythm with them and get the chains moving.
MR: Final thoughts/predictions for the game?
SI: I believe this a huge game for both teams. A win could really propel each team to possible contention for their respective divisions, while a loss sets both sides back not only in conference, but with their bowl hopes as well.
Though UTEP has played in tough venues the past two weeks, being at home is a big advantage for ECU. The Pirates have a young team that is still learning how to play, and being at home always helps to settle the nerves. UTEP is also 0-17-1 all-time in the eastern time zone, and this is about as eastern as the Miners can get. The wear and tear of playing three road games early in the season far from home could take an effect too, as ECU saw last week in its third consecutive road contest.
That said, this Miners team doesn't appear to be the UTEP of recent years. They're battle-tested and will come in hitting and unafraid.
I expect an extremely competitive game from two evenly matched teams that will likely come down to turnovers and a few big plays on either side. My gut tells me to go with East Carolina based on home field advantage alone, but it could truly go either way.
Prediction: ECU 27 - UTEP 24
Once again, a big thanks to Stephen Igoe for taking some time out to join us.