Pirates still have some kinks to work out

staff writerApril 18, 2010 

— Like the stands in the east end zone of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, East Carolina's football team is a work in progress.

That much was clear to the 7,125 fans on hand Saturday with a walk-on at starting quarterback, several dropped passes and a rash of penalties during the Pirates' first spring game under new coach Ruffin McNeill.

Between now and Sept. 5, the opener against Tulsa, the 7,000-seat addition in the end zone isn't the only thing that needs to be finished.

After winning back-to-back Conference USA titles under Skip Holtz, ECU has a new scheme on offense, a new scheme on defense and 15 starting positions to fill.

McNeill called the top job at his alma mater a "challenge," after 28 seniors left the program with Holtz, who went to South Florida in early January.

"We lost 28 really good football players," McNeill said. "I'm excited about the guys that have stepped up and taken advantage of the opportunity."

McNeill praised the crowd and the players' effort on both sides while saying the mistakes would be corrected.

Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley made a more direct assessment of the 100-play scrimmage, which was set up as offense-vs.-defense rather than a true spring game.

"We tried to make too much happen," Riley said.

The 26-year-old coordinator called the effort disappointing and said at times the trio of untested quarterbacks made "stupid passes."

"We definitely have improvements to make," Riley said.

In the switch to Riley's spread offense, an import from Texas Tech, sophomore walk-on Brad Wornick has emerged as the top candidate to replace Patrick Pinkney at quarterback.

Wornick completed 18 of 33 passes for 226 yards with two touchdowns and an interception on Saturday. Wornick's ascension up the depth chart -- he didn't take a snap in 2009 -- is a surprise to everyone but him.

"Coming in here, [the starters] is what you hope to be," Wornick said. "Right now, I'm in a pretty good position so I'm feeling good about it."

Wornick, who is 6 feet 2 and 185 pounds, had his moments on Saturday, including a 48-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Javon Brumsey, but he also looked disjointed, as did the offense as a whole.

With three starters back on the offensive line and receiver Dwayne Harris, who led the team with 83 catches in 2009, there are parts for Riley to make a productive offense by the fall.

Slot receiver Michael Bowman (six catches, 43 yards) and Andrew Bodenheimer (six catches, 83 yards, two TDs) showed potential in ECU's new pass-happy offense.

Over the course of 100 plays, the Pirates ran 29 times and passed 71. Scholarship quarterbacks Rio Johnson (18-for-27, 105 yards) and Josh Jordan (4-for-11, 23) also took turns directing the spread but weren't as effective or consistent as Wornick.

The defense, which needs nine new starters, didn't pull any punches. The Pirates blitzed early and often to ring up 11 sacks. They also played man coverage in the secondary, a departure from the previous regime.

"Last year, we'd sit back and play a zone," said corner Travis Simmons, one of two returning starters. "This year, we're coming after the quarterback a lot more and being more aggressive."

Simmons, who had one of two interceptions on the day, said ECU fans shouldn't be worried about Saturday's mistakes or the new players on both sides of the ball.

"There are a lot of new faces out there but there's a lot of talent," Simmons said. "We're not worried about it at all. These guys will get better."

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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