Ruffin It: The Pirates Storm The American

Apr 27, 2014 1:56 PM EST

After a rocky start of sub-.500 football in his first two seasons at the helm, Ruffin McNeill righted the ship in 2012 and has led the East Carolina Pirates to 18 wins scattered across the last two seasons. The former Mike Leach disciple, whose affinity for pirates is well-documented, enters 2014 with high expectations and the talent to match. Armed with coordinator Lincoln Riley’s potent offense, McNeill is primed to make a big splash in the American.

McNeill played defensive back for East Carolina from 1976-1980, the first four years as a member of College Football Hall of Fame coach Pat Dye’s Pirate squads. He started his career as Clemson's linebackers coach in 1985 and coached defenses in various capacities for the next 15 years. His stops included a brief return to his alma mater in 1992 before leaving for Appalachian State, continuing to notable programs such as Fresno State and UNLV.

From 2000-09, McNeill was a mainstay of the Mike Leach era at Texas Tech. McNeill wore many hats as a Red Raider, operating as the linebackers coach for his entire tenure, assistant coach for five years, and defensive coordinator for his final three seasons.  He was named interim head coach after the fallout between Leach and the university regarding Leach’s handling of the Adam James situation, winning the 2009 Alamo Bowl in his only game as head coach in Lubbock, Texas.

Skip Holtz had steered the Pirates to conference titles in 2008 and 2009, but left for the green pastures of the University of South Florida. With a vacancy at his alma mater and turmoil swirling at his current school, McNeill took the captaincy at ECU and brought Lincoln Riley along to coach his offense. In their first year, the school finished 6-7 after losing its bowl game and followed the maiden voyage with a disappointing 5-7 record.

However, the team established an identity. Riley’s pass-happy spread succeeded immediately with Dominique Davis quarterbacking the team. After sporadic playing time at Boston College, Davis transferred to ECU and shredded single-season school marks. His 3,967 passing yards in 2010 shattered Jeff Blake’s long-standing record of 3,073 yards and his follow-up season eclipsed Blake’s total as well.

Shane Carden since has straddled those two tallies, finishing with the fourth-best passing season in 2012 and bypassing Davis atop the record books in 2013. With Riley calling the shots and Carden back for his senior season, the offense remains one of the elite units in college football.

Oddly enough, defense has been McNeill’s biggest challenge with the Pirates. Bringing coordinator Brian Mitchell with him from Texas Tech proved foolhardy as opponents gashed the defense for 44 points per game in 2010, 32.3 in 2011 and 31.6 in 2012. The unit showed incremental improvement, but still was one of the biggest sieves in the nation.

McNeill brought in Rick Smith to take over as defensive coordinator in 2013. Smith spent five years with the program from 2005-09 coaching defensive backs before tagging along with Holtz to Tampa. The defense surrendered less than 25 points per game, good for 49th in the country and a dramatic improvement from the previous season.

Entering 2014, McNeill and the Pirates are positioned to make a conference championship run. In a conference home to the air assaults of Houston, SMU and Gunner Kiel’s long-awaited debut at Cincinnati, East Carolina fits right in as another dynamic offense with an average defense. McNeill’s stewardship as the team enters uncharted waters should solidify them as a force to be reckoned with.