Back in December, the announcement of the Florida Gators-East Carolina Pirates matchup in the Birmingham Bowl was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It’s difficult to get excited about playing an unfamiliar non-conference foe twice in the period of three games, even if there’s an eight-month break between said games.

Any fears of a Birmingham Bowl redux on Saturday can be put to bed, as both teams have undergone significant changes. The Pirates offense lost four major components in three-year starting QB Shane Harden, WR Justin Hardy (all-time FBS receptions leader), RB Breon Allen and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.

ECU coach Ruffin McNeill promoted outside receivers coach Dave Nichol to offensive coordinator for the 2015 campaign. The Pirates offense is heavily inspired by Mike Leach’s version of the spread. Nichol, who played receiver at Texas Tech 1995-1999, was a student assistant on Leach’s TTU staff during McNeill’s time as linebackers coach.

Nichol had hoped to build this year’s offense around QB Kurt Benkert, but Benkert suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp. Even though UF has seen a coaching change and departures of its own, it’s difficult to foresee the new ECU offense effectively moving the ball on the Gators in The Swamp.

Prior to becoming the head coach at ECU in 2010, McNeill compiled a lengthy collegiate coaching resume as a defensive assistant (25 years) with an emphasis on linemen and linebackers. East Carolina’s media guide lists the Pirates defensive scheme as multiple 3-4. Traditionally, linebackers under McNeill have excelled as run stoppers.

An inexperienced offensive line could hamper the UF running game against ECU’s front seven. Expect Florida coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to rely heavily on the air attack against a Pirates defense that struggled to stop the pass last season (ranked No. 98). UF QB Treon Harris exited the Birmingham Bowl early due to injury, but managed two touchdowns in his first 11 passing attempts.

If Harris and rookie QB Will Grier both struggle to throw on ECU, it would be a bad sign for the Gators with SEC play just around the corner.


Top player, offense: Chris Hairston, Sr., RB – Hairston served as Allen’s primary backup last season, registering 528 yards on 79 rushes for 6.7 yards per carry. He led ECU’s ground attack in the Birmingham Bowl, recording 17 carries for 73 yards.

Top player, defense: Terrell Stanley, Sr., DE – The Pirates hope to have Stanley back at full strength this season after he missed the 2014 season to rehabilitate injuries suffered in an auto accident. A force on the defensive line, Stanley notched 10 tackles for loss and 7 sacks in 2013.

Top player, special teams: Trevon Brown, So., KR/PR – ECU’s special teams struggled in 2014. The Pirates hope that Brown can provide a spark in the return game, building on his team-leading averages of 23.5 yards per kickoff return and 8.5 yards per punt return.