GREENVILLE — A spring practice brimming with promise will conclude Saturday, but there is plenty of important progress to be made before the final whistle in ECU’s annual Purple-Gold Scrimmage inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The fourth spring game under coach Ruffin McNeill will feature an offense decorated in game experience that already has spent much of April making big plays, and a reworked defense under first-year coordinator Rick Smith that packs potential if the secondary can prove it’s made considerable strides.
“It’s going to be very competitive, I can tell you that right now,” McNeill said. “Fourteen days in, I’m pleased with where are as a team, and I’m looking forward to the 15th practice, the spring game.”
McNeill said the Pirates, 8-5 last season, will aim for their usual target of 80 to 100 plays. Like with previous scrimmages under McNeill, the game will be a rotation of the team’s first-, second- and third-string offenses against the first-, second- and third-string defenses.
Scouting the offense
The Pirates’ initial pair of scrimmages featured some shining moments from junior quarterback Shane Carden and leading pass targets like Justin Hardy and Danny Webster, who hauled in a pair of touchdowns each in the team’s initial scrimmages.
The running attack lost junior and likely lead backup Chris Hairston to a shoulder injury during camp, and with senior Vintavious Cooper serving a team suspension already, the Pirate backfield was manned by the likes of senior fullback/tight end Zico Pasut and walk-on tailback Cory Hunter.
The line is loaded with experience, and Riley thinks that unit had perhaps the best camp of any on the offense. Senior Adhem Elsawi moved to right tackle to allow sophomore Isaac Harris to man left tackle, while on the inside senior guards Jordan Davis and Will Simmons will flank a trio of battling centers — junior Taylor Hudson, sophomore C.J. Struyk and redshirt freshman J.T. Boyd.
“I think our first unit is playing well, and that’s to be expected because they’ve been around and they’ve been responsible for a lot of the success that we had last year,” fourth-year coordinator Lincoln Riley said of his line. “I think a lot of people forget when they talk about the first time having a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver (Hardy and Cooper did it last season), but you know how you do that? With a great O-line.”
Riley said he would challenge Carden and projected backup Cody Keith by substituting them based on game situations.
Scouting the defense
Smith knows his front seven has talent, but he also knows all eyes will be on the secondary, including those of opponent offenses, this season.
Redshirt DeShaun Amos and junior Detric Allen drew praise from Smith at the corner positions, but as the spring game kickoff looms, senior former transfer Adonis Armstrong and sophomore Josh Hawkins appear poised to see at least an equal share of the action.
With senior free safety Damon Magazu out all spring with an injury, sophomore Domonique Lennon and senior former running back Michael Dobson, who was also enjoyed a big spring under Smith’s guidance.
The return of tackling machine Jeremy Grove from injury to his usual spot at inside linebacker, where sophomore Zeek Bigger has excelled, and next to senior Kyle Tudor leading the buck position. On the outside, seniors Derrell Johnson and Gabe Woullard have made a smooth transition.
Up front, Terrell Stanley made the switch to end, flanking senior Lee Pegues, while junior Terry Williams remains the leading man at the nose position, ahead of junior Chrishon Rose.
“First of all, we don’t want to give up any uncontested deep balls,” Smith said of the secondary. “Even if they catch a deep ball, we want somebody there to cover him. We don’t want mental mistakes. I don’t have a problem with a defensive back that’s where he’s supposed to be, doing what’s supposed to do and a receiver comes down with it. It’s when a guy is running free because he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.”
Contact Nathan Summers at email@example.com or 252-329-9595.