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NC State vs. ECU: In a game of unknowns, Philip Nelson might be tops among them

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James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

East Carolina, which is coming off a 5-7 season and returns a modest number of starters, cruised past Western Carolina last weekend. How much of that effort was real and how much of it mirage, though? That's the difficult thing to even guess about this time of year. (And NC State faces a similar question heading into the weekend.)

The Pirates last season were in six games decided by one score and lost four of them--the year could have ended up looking much different for them (and for Ruffin McNeill). Both the defense and offense had their good days, but neither was consistent enough. The advanced metrics were not impressed with the overall performance on either side of the ball.

East Cack Off. S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Offense 71 5.7 (55) 4.0 (94) 7.1 (70)
2015 Defense 73 5.4 (49) 4.0 (48) 7.2 (72)

Good enough certainly to make a bowl game--though their ability to keep games close last year says plenty to that effect--but mostly blah. As you may have guessed based on this chart, ECU points scored (329) and allowed (312) totals were pretty close. A .500ish team walking the bowl game tightrope that fell off before it could hit paydirt and the GoEatMeatsInMissoula.org Bowl. Sad story; we see it every year.

Improvement at quarterback this season obviously would be one of the major things that could push the Pirates back to the postseason. It's not like they missed by much last year, after all, and starter Blake Kemp was merely competent (16 TD, 10 INT, 7.1 YPA, 137.6 QB rating). Kemp was efficient (69.3% completions) but wasn't really a playmaker.

Enter Minnesota transfer Philip Nelson, who is at his third FBS school. He was dismissed from Rutgers in May of 2014 following a late-night fight that left one man with a serious brain injury. Prior to this past weekend, Nelson hadn't played a down of college football since the 2013 season, when he played for Minnesota. (I am not gonna editorialize here about Nelson's off-field problems.)

He didn't show much rust against Western Carolina, but his larger track record suggests he'll be more of an approximation of Kemp than anything else. In two seasons with the Gophers, he threw 17 TDs against 14 INTs and completed only 49.7% of his passes. He was supplanted by Mitch Leidner in 2013, which is one reason he chose to transfer.

Nelson inherited an iffy running game and the left side of his offensive line is essentially brand new. So is he the answer at quarterback for ECU, the guy they need to get them a few extra wins this season? No way of knowing at this point, but if you're the Pirates you'd certainly prefer his hot start to the alternative. A struggle against Western Carolina would have implied a lot of very not good things.

But instead he's got confidence from that effort, and he has the comfort of a great player like Zay Jones, who had 98 catches in 2015. That kind of guy will help just about any quarterback's numbers.

Those are positives, but still, it's been nearly three years since Nelson had an effective passing performance against a power-five team.