NEWPORT, R.I. (ECU Media Relations) – Coming off its inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference and its eighth bowl appearance in the last nine years, East Carolina has been tabbed to finish fourth in the East Division of the AAC as voted on by members of the media.
The Pirates picked up a total 105 points finishing ahead of USF (53) and UConn (42) in the preseason East Division poll. Cincinnati, who received 29 first-place votes (179 points), was picked to win the East Divisional crown and selected as the favorite to hold the trophy following the first AAC Football Championship. UCF garnered one first place vote (135 points), while Temple came in third with 116 points.
A tighter race is projected for the West Division as Memphis edged Houston and Navy as the favorite to reach the championship game. The Tigers received 13 first-place votes and were just four points ahead of Houston and five points ahead of Navy in the balloting.
The first American Athletic Conference Football Championship will be played Saturday, Dec. 5, at the home site of the division champion with the best conference record.
ECU, who turned in an 8-5 overall record and a 5-3 AAC mark in 2014, returns 11 of 22 positional starters with six on offense and five on defense. The Pirates also return 60 lettermen from last year’s squad (26/offense, 29/defense, 5/specialist).
Of the 11 returnees, six Pirates have been named to a preseason watch list, surpassing the previous high of five in 2013: Zeek Bigger (Chuck Bednarik Award, Dick Butkus Award, Rotary Lombardi Award), J.T. Boyd (Rotary Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy), Ike Harris (Rotary Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy), Isaiah Jones (Fred Biletnikoff Award, Paul Hornung Award), Montese Overton (Dick Butkus Award, Rotary Lombardi Award) and Bryce Williams (John Mackey Award).
Bigger, who earned Second-Team All-American Athletic conference honors as a junior, led the American Conference and ranked ninth nationally with 10.8 tackles per game. The Gastonia, N.C. native registered a team and league-high 140 tackles and recorded double-digit stops on eight occasions, including a career-best 17 against in-state foe North Carolina. He also returned an interception 46 yards for a score against the Tar Heels helping him earn Walter Camp National Defensive-Player-of-the-Week honors. During his three-year career, Bigger has tallied 235 stops (113 solo) with 8.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, nine pass breakups and five quarterback hurries to go along with three interceptions. He has started 23 of 39 career games, including all 13 a year ago, and has recorded multiple tackles on 30 occasions.
Both Boyd and Harris helped anchor an offensive line that produced four 100-yard rushers, while providing pass protection for six 400-yard efforts by 2014 quarterback Shane Carden. The duo were key members of a unit that produced 500 yards or more of total offense eight times and stood among the national team leaders in passing offense (3rd/371.9 pg), total offense (5th/533.0 pg) and scoring (22nd/35.8 ppg). They also helped ECU turn in its first 2,000-yard rushing campaign since 2009 last fall, while averaging 4.8 yards per run – the unit’s highest per-carry total since 2007.
Last year Jones started nine of 13 games hauling down a team second-best 81 passes for 830 yards (10.2 ypc) with five touchdowns. He also added 485 return yards (477/KOR, 8/PR) finishing his sophomore campaign with 1,315 all-purpose yards. In the season opener against N.C. Central, Jones established new career standards with 10 catches for 150 yards, which included a 41-yard TD pass from Hardy in the second quarter. The Austin, Texas native has posted three 100-yard receiving efforts on the year (150/NCCU, 116/UNC, 130/SMU), while adding his second career double-digit reception game against UConn (10) in league play. During his two-year career, Jones has caught 143 passes for 1,434 yards (10.0 ypc) with 10 touchdowns in 26 career games (17 starts).
A preseason All-AAC selection by Athlon Sports and Phil Steele Magazine, Overton started all 13 games as a junior tallying 68 tackles (34 solo) to rank fourth on the squad in 2014. The Greenville, N.C. native booked multiple tackles in all 13 contests (five or more in seven outings), while standing second in TFLs (11.5/-36 yards) and third in sacks (3.0/-19 yards). Overton averaged 5.2 stops per games, which ranked among the top 40 defenders in the league. In three seasons with the Pirates, Overton has played in 34 games (16 starts) and recorded 147 tackles (82 solo). He has registered at least one stop in all 34 contests and credited with at least a half TFL on 18 occasions. Both he and Bigger have keyed a defensive unit that has held nine opponents to 17 or fewer points and 13 to less than 100 yards rushing since the start of the 2013 campaign.
A Second-Team All-American Athletic Conference selection as a junior, Williams is the first Pirate to be named to the Mackey Award Watch List, which is given annually to the most outstanding collegiate tight end. Williams, who started five of 13 games in 2014, caught 18 passes for 237 yards (13.2 ypc) with four touchdowns. The Winston Salem, N.C. native hauled down at least one pass in 10 of 13 contests and posted his first career multi-TD game at Tulsa (15 and 13 yards) in a 43-32 victory. Williams also added TDs at Virginia Tech (4 yards) and against Connecticut (10 yards). He also has played an integral role in the Pirates’ rushing attack as a blocker. ECU turned in its first 2,000-yard campaign since 2009 last fall and averaged 4.8 yards per rush — the unit’s highest per-carry clip since 2007. During his three-year career, Williams has 38 receptions for 457 yards (12.0 ypc) with nine scores. Twenty (20) of his 38 catches have gone for 10 or more yards with a career-long of 31 at Tulane in 2013. He has hauled down multiple passes on 14 occasions with a career-best four against Southern Miss (2013).
The Pirates will open the 2015 season at home against Towson inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 5 with a 6 p.m. (ET) scheduled kickoff.
2015 AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE PRESEASON FOOTBALL MEDIA POLL
Team (1st Place Votes) – Points
- Cincinnati (29) – 179
- UCF (1) – 135
- Temple – 116
- EAST CAROLINA – 105
- USF – 53
- Connecticut – 42
Team (1st Place Votes) – Points
- Memphis (13) – 153
- Houston (10) – 149
- Navy (7) – 148
- Tulane – 74
- SMU – 59
- Tulsa – 47