GREENVILLE — Ruffin McNeill has presided over four spring practice sessions as East Carolina’s football coach, but as he embarks on his fifth he admitted the vibe was a bit different. Delivering the second-highest win total in school history and its first bowl victory since 2007 has that effect.
“It is different. We had some momentum going into recruiting and some momentum going into the offseason,” McNeill said. “The kids realized that when you buy in and are selfishly unselfish and put in the work that the momentum will carry over.”
McNeill said ECU’s 10-3 (6-2 Conference USA) record in 2013 helps lend credence to what he preaches at practice and has lifted the Pirates’ spirits as they head into their first season in the American Athletic Conference.
“It’s not that they didn’t trust us, but they understand that what we ask them to do will help and will make you successful,” McNeill said.
The Pirates, who hold their first spring practice on Friday, lost 12 starters but return a slew of key players, most notably quarterback Shane Carden, the reigning Conference USA MVP, and receiver Justin Hardy, a C-USA first-team selection. Both are rising seniors. The duo helped ECU finish eighth in the nation in points per game (40.2), 11th in passing yards per contest (328.1) and 25th in total offense (468.2) last season.
O-line depth an issue: With offensive linemen Ike Harris (left tackle), C.J. Struyk (center) and Christian Matau (center) recovering from injuries, the Pirates will open camp with only eight linemen available for the three-week practice period.
McNeill will have to walk a fine line when it comes to how hard he pushes the unit, and it might lead to some defensive players switching sides.
“It will be a little different,” he said. “We have done this this before when we were short where maybe we’ll have someone from the defensive line step in when we divide because there will be some parts of the spring where we expose them to … some various offenses or defenses that we’ll face next year. … We just have to be smart during that time.”
The line will get some reinforcements during fall camp when the 2014 signees check in.
Secondary a primary concern: Safeties Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson and cornerback Adonis Armstrong are gone, so the Pirates must replace 75 percent of its starting secondary.
Detric Allen and Josh Hawkins, who combined to start 13 games last season, top the depth chart at cornerback, while junior Domonique Lennon and senior Lamar Ivey were listed as starters at strong and free safety, respectively.
They are the most experienced members, but their jobs are far from solidified.
“I think in the secondary, you will see some competition there,” McNeill said. “At field corner, DaShawn (Benton) and those guys are going to be guys that you will see (compete). It will be fun.
“Detric Allen and DaShaun Amos is going to be a great competition. Those two guys have worked hard. Detric had one of the best offseasons and set some (weight room) records for his position and DaShaun is ready to go.
“At safety, I think Lamar Ivey, Dominque Lennon, Cody (Purdue), Xavier Smith, Travon Simmons and Blake Norwood will all be competing.”