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Florida vs. East Carolina: Previewing the Gators' second Pirates battle in nine months

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This ECU team isn't as good as last year's edition.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

For teams that don't have much history between each other, Florida sure seems to play East Carolina often.

On Saturday, the two teams will face off for the second time in their last three games and the last nine months, after Florida's 28-20 win in last season's Birmingham Bowl. This time around is poised to look absolutely nothing like their first matchup since both teams are rebuilding in their own ways.

Florida's biggest change is, obviously, the near-total turnover of its coaching staff; only offensive coach Mike Summers remains from the staff that prepared the Gators for that bowl. We noticed a few differences between this year and last year already in UF's first game versus New Mexico State, and should see more of the playbook open up both offensively and defensively against the Pirates.

As for East Carolina, most of their noticeable changes will come because of personnel turnover: The stars of 2014 are no longer in the program. ECU not only lost the all-time leader in passing yards with the departure of quarterback Shane Carden, but also their all-time receiving leader in Justin Hardy. Mix that in with former offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley now calling the plays for Oklahoma and you figure the Pirates are going to have their struggles early on, and they did in their opening game versus Towson.

This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nate Summers, the ECU beat reporter for The Daily Reflector in Greenville, North Carolina. Summers has been covering the Pirates for 10 years and gave me a great look into where this program is going to be on Saturday because of where it's been in the last few years.

Here's what I learned:

ECU's potent Air Raid offense

Recently, I started the hashtag #AirRaidOrDie on Twitter; frankly, I did it because I like points, and 2015's version of college football, if you ain't scorin' you dyin'. That's been ECU's philosophy for the last few years, at least since head coach Ruffin McNeill took over in 2010. ECU's version of the attack has its roots in Mike Leach's version of it, and dates back to his tenure at Texas Tech, where McNeill and Riley coached under him for many years as defensive coordinator (McNeill) and offensive coordinator (Riley).

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In the image above, we have the base for an Air Raid offense: Four wide receivers, quarterback in the shotgun set and a running back to his side. Air Raid offenses normally operate at a hurry-up tempo, and this is true in ECU's case; the Pirates ran 70 plays against Towson last week, and clicked off an incredible 101 offensive snaps against Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.

The goal of up-tempo play in an Air Raid is generally to allow as little defensive substitution as they can while moving the ball up the field with quick-hit passes, until the tempo eventually forces the defense into confusion, then permits the offense to capitalize on a blown assignment.

This isn't always the case, but ECU's spread offense makes almost all of their adjustments at the line. What ECU's coaches will do is call a simple play with a few options on how to run it, then have their quarterback adjust what was called when he sees the coverage at the line. Here's a visual:

The order of operations: The center calls out the MIKE linebacker (Antonio Morrison here), and Carden audibles the play depending on what he sees.

That's how ECU got the most out of their spread offense, with a quarterback-center combination with the football IQ to make calls like that. However, one of the major differences coming into this year versus last year is how new quarterback Blake Kemp is handling that role. So far, it's not a great look: Kemp threw for "just" 235 yards against Towson, but his 6.4 yards per attempt were fewer than ECU QBs put up in all but their games against Florida and Temple in 2014.

In Kemp's defense, his name wasn't in the original blue print for 2015: Sophomore quarterback Kurt Benkert was supposed to be ECU's next stat-sheet king behind center. For the last year, the Pirates were grooming him to be Carden's successor, but, just 10 days before the season started, they lost him for the year on a non-contact knee injury.

Kemp takes over as a JUCO transfer who was never supposed to man the ship, and though that sounds a bit dismissive, he was brought in purely as a safety guy. Unfortunately for the Pirates, they're forced to use him, and the results are sort of what you thought. The point of the Pirates' Air Raid attack is to capitalize down the field eventually, but according to Summers, Kemp barely even tested the field beyond 10-15 yards, and, as Summers also noted, if ECU was going to try to warm Kemp up to that task, you'd figure they would've used Towson as the test subject; they didn't.

Florida brings in one of the best secondaries in the country, if not the best. And it allowed Carden, a far better QB than Kemp, to complete just 50 percent of his throws in Birmingham. If we see more than a handful of throws beyond 15 yards in four quarters, I'll be shocked.

Defense may be a surprising strength

The defense for ECU looks to be the Pirates' strength this year, especially with the offense in a bit of a disarray early. Defensive coordinator Rick Smith is in his third year at the position and presents a real no-nonsense kind of defense. From what I've seen, the Pirates' edge lies in how they switch up their blitzes within a 3-4 system.

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The giveaway for a 3-4 look is where that middle defensive lineman is positioned. In the image above, you see he's right over the center at a true nose tackle spot. This is called a zero-technique defensive lineman. (The number has to do with where he's positioned, not an obvious lack of skill.)

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I know I've shown this chart before, but it's always good to have a refresher. In a 3-4, you generally have you defensive line position themselves with two four-tech players and one zero-tech right above the center. Alternatively, in a 4-3 look, you'd see a one- or two-tech DT paired with a three-tech DT and at least one five-tech defensive end to rush the passer. The alignments are just different ways of taking up space.

Traditionally, if you want your main pass rush to come from a linebacker, you'll play a 3-4 and use the big guys to be more run/gap stuffers. If you want your pass rush to come from the guys with their hands in the ground (the defensive tackles and ends), you'd most likely choose to go 4-3, because with more players on the line, the less double teams you're matched up with.

As for how this relates to ECU, the versatility and mix-ups on the line are what creates what chaos Smith is able to produce, with stunt blitzes and delayed blitzes used frequently. It's a defensive front that will use a constant rotation of players, but the man to really watch out for is outside linebacker Montese Overton. ECU lists Overton at the SAM linebacker position (strong side). He's a guy we'll see rush without his hand in the ground most of the time.

Last but maybe least, we get to the defensive backs. In our conversation, Summers told me this is the most frustrating unit on the team, due not to their talent at hand but a lack of consistency. Summers told me that DB has been an area of concern for a Smith defense for a while now, said communication in the deep zone has never been ECU's strong suit, and added that a lack of reliability in defending the deep ball leaves the Pirates open to attack down the field.

Josh Hawkins is ECU's most talented defensive back, finishing as a Jim Thorpe Award finalist in 2014, but even he has his struggles. I assume they'll stick him on Antonio Callaway with Demarcus Robinson seeming in the dog house, but I really do think there are just too many receiving options -- not to mention tight ends -- for Florida to find themselves stalling against this defense. All they have to do is avoid hits like this one from safety Terrell Richardson.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Summers to give me a prediction for the game and here's what he had to say.

"I think Florida is going to take this one. Athletically speaking, I think Florida's offense is going to be tough for East Carolina to handle for all four quarters. I don’t think it’s going to be a blowout like UF had last week, but ECU could let the game get away from them in the second half if they're not carful. "

I think Florida wins this one by 30 and puts up another 40-point game offensively, and I just don't trust Kemp to attack UF's secondary routinely, if at all. Pirates running back Chris Hairston had 154 yards on the ground and four touchdowns against Towson, and will play the role New Mexico State's Larry Rose III performed from last week, putting together a few good plays, but this one shouldn't be close.