EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the 23rd in a series of previews on West Virginia and Marshall football opponents.
Checking them out
The Pirates' 2011 season ended with Dominique Davis circling midfield at Edwards Stadium on fourth down in overtime, throwing a desperation pass to Marshall's Darryl Roberts. That became ECU's 14th loss in two seasons, which doesn't sit well with Conference USA's strongest fan base.
McNeil, still slimming down from his January 2011 gastric bypass surgery, is still trying to replicate the success the Pirates enjoyed under Skip Holtz. He will do so with 15 returning starters.
But Davis is not one of them. The Pirates have a free-for-all at quarterback between junior Rio Johnson, sophomore Shane Carden, redshirt freshman Cody Keith and senior Brad Wornick. Johnson's name is printed first in the post-spring two-deep, but the word "OR" separates all candidates.
The winner will be expected to pile up big numbers in the Texas Tech manner - McNeil and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley are Mike Leach disciples. The ball will be spread around in every manner, and the Pirates have their top three 2011 rushers and four of the top five receivers back. Four starters return on the line.
The Pirates' defense stands to be more solid up the middle. That starts with Michael Brooks, whose 55 tackles are a high number for a 3-4 nose guard. Inside linebackers Jeremy Grove and Daniel Drake combined for 196 tackles in 2011, with free safety Damon Magazu tallying 80 and four interceptions. Junior-college imports will be counted on to help Magazu in the back.
Herd fans will be happy to know that Michael Barbour, whose 57- and 58-yard field goals are the two longest in Edwards Stadium history, is gone. In fact, the Pirates have to replace the kicker, punter, snapper, holder and return specialists.
As usual, the Pirates have loaded up on higher-tier regional opponents such as North Carolina. You could say their schedule is "easier" with the addition of an FCS team - until you see that opening foe is Appalachian State. The Mountaineers were the last FCS team the Pirates played, in 2009. Before that? William & Mary, way back in 2001.
ECU has passed the 20,000 mark in season-ticket sales for the sixth straight season, doing so July 24. The all-time school record is 24,188, set in a 2011 season in which average attendance just topped the 50,000 capacity. . . . The program is expected to collect its 400th victory all-time, perhaps in September. The Pirates are 398-374-12. . . . McNeil's record includes a bowl win as Texas Tech interim coach. . . . Nose tackle Terry Williams was suspended indefinitely after his arrest in July on marijuana charges in Simpson, N.C.