GREENVILLE — If you don’t bring your “A” game to Ruffin McNeill’s practices, you won’t start.
That’s the message McNeill and his assistants reiterated time and time again during ECU’s annual media day on Saturday.
The Pirates went 5-7 last season. Injuries to key players and lack of depth resulted in the program missing a bowl game for the first time since 2005.
One problem that East Carolina has yet to solve is at quarterback. Four players — 2011 backup Rio Johnson, senior Brad Wornick, sophomore Shane Carden and redshirt freshman Cody Keith — are in the running. All four received equal first-team reps throughout the spring and again in Friday’s practice.
Both McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said the competition for the starting quarterback position remains a four-man race. But when does competition end and preparation for the season opener against Appalachian State begin?
“Two weeks before the first game, we’d certainly like to have it down to two,” said Riley. “But before we get it down to two, we have to get it narrowed down to three.”
Riley also stated that that it would be better to solve the quarterback issue as soon as they can, but that it’s very difficult for the coaching staff to establish a cutoff date due to the sometimes unpredictable nature of his throwers’ progressions.
According to star receiver Justin Hardy, the competition has already made some progress in his mind.
“I work best with Rio or Shane,” he said. “Just because they both came in with me.”
Hardy’s performance will play a key part in the success of the Pirates’ offense, as the sophomore receiver is coming off a remarkable freshman season. Lincoln showered Hardy with praise for his offseason work ethic and commitment to leading the offense.
“An awesome kid and an awesome worker, he’ll be one of the best that’s ever played here,” Lincoln said. “No question about it.”
The backfield will feature a running back “by committee” system, with more emphasis on fresh legs than establishing a go-to guy. Reggie Bullock is set to be the starter after returning from a right leg injury that caused him to miss the last five games of 2011.
Michael Dobson, Hunter Furr, Torrance Hunt, and Chris Hairston are all behind Bullock on the depth chart, but figure to be involved with the first-team offense as well.
Defensively, the Pirates return seven starters to a unit ranked 56th in total defense and 97th in scoring defense last season.