GREENVILLE — On a warm, sunny day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Chris Hairston took a small step forward in what is turning out to be a heated running back race at East Carolina.
The Pirates’ 6-foot-0, 197-pound redshirt junior rushed six times for 44 yards and caught two passes for 23 during ECU’s annual Purple and Gold game Saturday to cap an impressive spring campaign.
“I’ve been really happy with Chris,” East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “We didn’t have an offensive player that’s had a better spring than Chris Hairston.”
The Parkland High alum and former all-Forsyth County selection entered the spring at No. 2 on the depth chart behind senior Breon Allen, the Pirates’ top returning rusher from a year ago, but his effort during the past month has given Riley cause to reconsider.
“It’s probably 1A and 1B right now. Those two guys have gone at it pretty good,” Riley said.
While Allen was the first back to enter the game, Hairston looked strong early as he broke off a 10-yard run during his first series, caught a nine-yard screen pass on his second and got loose for an 18-yard gain on his third, which if not for a last-second tackle could have been 30-plus yard touchdown.
“It went great,” Hairston said of his spring game performance. “You have to give it to the O-line, I couldn’t do it without them. We had all the receivers blocking and I felt like everybody contributed and did their part.”
Riley has asked Hairston to make better use of his six-foot frame and on Saturday he complied.
“He’s got that size and that speed that we haven’t had since we’ve been here and I think you saw it today that he’s starting to run with authority,” Riley said.
Hairston, who turned down a scholarship offer from Wisconsin to play at East Carolina, has shown flashes in the past, but his attempts at cracking the rotation have been slowed by injuries.
Hairston suffered a season-ending knee injury as a redshirt freshman and was in the midst of a promising spring campaign this time last year before sustaining a shoulder injury.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Hairston said. “All I can do is just continue to hit the weight room hard and try to prevent that, but I’m feeling great right now.”
When healthy, Hairston can be a weapon, as evidenced by his 94-yard rushing performance against Middle Tennessee State last season when he filled in for injured starter Vintavious Cooper.
However, despite that career performance, Allen was able to rush his way past Hairston to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart midway through the year and never let it go.
“It was kind of nip-and-tuck. Chris played really well against Middle Tennessee. We don’t beat Middle Tennessee without him,” Riley said. “It was a close battle between those two, but Breon, for what we were asking a second back to do, it really fit his strengths at the time.”
Hairston has worked hard to improve his durability this spring and Riley said his reconstructed physique and mindset have propelled him into contention for the top spot.
“He’s really worked hard in the weight room to get his body to where he can handle it. He’s tightened some things up. Through the spring he has taken some shots and he’s just popped right up,” Riley said. “He’s ready to take it. I think in the past he was ready to be a role player, but now I think he’s ready to take it and be a major contributor.”