ECU high-octane offense to challenge NCCU defenders

Aug. 28, 2014 @ 04:19 PM

Not everybody can get away with sporting a blonde mohawk.

N.C. Central cornerback Mike Jones pulls if off with a swagger that won’t quit.

Jones, a sophomore from Baltimore, Maryland, was a fabulous freshman with four interceptions and a dozen passes defended. He’s on the preseason all-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference first team.

East Carolina could challenge Jones’ moxie in the season opener for both the Pirates and the Eagles in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville on Saturday (8 p.m., ESPNews).

ECU coach Ruffin McNeill has a couple of guys who’ve combined for 18 touchdown receptions during their time with the Pirates. Those catches for scores lead all active quarterback-wide receiver tandems on the Football Bowl Subdivsion level.

Last season, ECU senior quarterback Shane Carden threw for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns. He completed 71 percent of his passes, second best in the nation, and a bunch of those balls landed in the hands of ECU senior wide receiver Justin Hardy.

Hardy last season caught 114 passes for 1,284 yards. He needs three receptions to become the most prolific pass catcher in Pirates history. With 84 catches, Hardy would surpass the FBS career-receptions record of 349 that Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles set between 2008-11.

Jones will have solid help in NCCU’s nickel secondary that includes redshirt junior Ryan Smith and senior C.J. Moore.

“C.J. really brings a calming to the secondary, certainly a leadership quality. He’s a very cerebral young man, very athletic for a bigger kid,” NCCU defensive coordinator Granville Eastman said. “Ryan Smith — I think he’s a freak. I think he’s a different type of athlete. I think he’s barely scratched the surface of what he’s capable of.”

The way Jones holds down the corner affords NCCU some flexibility in its new-look 4-2-5 defense, Eastman said.

NCCU ran a 3-4 base defense a year ago under the coaching staff of Henry Frazier III, who was fired last summer. After Jerry Mack was hired in December and the coaches he assembled studied the player personnel they inherited, it became clear that a 4-2-5 scheme would allow the Eagles to get more out of the guys on the roster, Eastman said.

Once upon a time, nickel schemes in the secondary primarily were used in special situations, generally when teams were looking to pick up big yardage through the air. But with so many coaches these days running spread offenses, nickel packages make sense as base defenses, in part because they’re readily adaptable, Eastman said.

Smith and Moore each had two interceptions last season, and neither one of them mind hitting. Last season, Smith was the No. 2 tackler on the team with 88 takedowns, and Moore was third with 77.