East Carolina

ECU football: Pirates rely on misfits, walk-ons to create winning program

ECU linebacker Brandon Williams (24) pressures Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee (12) in the first quarter of play at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville.
ECU linebacker Brandon Williams (24) pressures Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee (12) in the first quarter of play at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. cliddy@newsobserver.com

They come from the far wide corners of North Carolina and beyond. The hungry, the overlooked, the undervalued, all lined up for a chance to live their dream.

There may not be a 150-foot tall statue of the Roman goddess Libertas erected in front of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, holding her torch raised high toward the heavens, but make no mistake, East Carolina has become the Ellis Island of college football. The place where any player, regardless of height, hometown or star value, has the opportunity to succeed if they’re willing to work hard enough.

Under fifth-year coach Ruffin McNeill, the Pirates have risen as high as No. 18 in the AP poll this season and were ranked No. 23 in the first College Football Playoff poll. In the past two seasons, they’ve beaten UNC twice and N.C. State once. All achieved with a cast of players rejected by the rest of major college football.

Not counting special teams, ECU has 50 players on its depth chart, 14 of whom were walk-ons. Some, like record-breaking wide receiver Justin Hardy, have ascended to stardom, while others punch the clock and take their positions. But each has made major contributions to the melting pot known as the Pirates.

“We find the players that nobody else wants,” Hardy said. “That’s the kind of mentality that we have here. We’re the team that nobody else wants, and that’s really what keeps us going.”

They don’t arrive with much hype, but the ECU walk-ons show up with hope and the promise that they will receive a fair shake.

“We do a lot of evaluation and we treat the walk-ons as we do any number of star recruits,” McNeill said.

Hardy the ultimate walk-on success story

No player embodies the rags-to-riches story better than Hardy, a former quarterback at West Craven High School who received zero Div. I scholarship offers upon graduation. The senior wide receiver arrived in Greenville with the dream of playing Div. I football, and like so many passes thrown his way, he never let it go.

Four years later, Hardy owns the Pirates’ all-time record for receptions (355), receiving yards (4,153) and touchdown catches (32), and entered Saturday’s game four receptions shy of becoming the NCAA’s all-time leader. He broke that record on an 8-yard catch for a first down with about 5 minutes left in the second quarter.

“It’s been huge, it’s been a game-changer,” ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of the contributions made by walk-ons. “We don’t have nearly enough receivers on scholarship. We’ve been able to overcome that, especially at (the wide receiver) position. Some of it has been luck, some of it’s been that we work hard. We recruit them like they’re scholarship guys.”

Perhaps even more so, according to ECU recruiting coordinator/inside receivers coach Donnie Kirkpatrick.

“We really try to put emphasis on it a lot like the NFL does with free agents,” Kirkpatrick said. “I really think we spend more time as a coaching staff evaluating and talking about the potential walk-on kids more than the kids we sign.

“There’s only so many guys you can take after you sign your kids, and we only have 125 kids on the team (roughly 85 of whom are on scholarship). That might sound like a lot, but it’s not a lot in football where you might redshirt a whole class and guys don’t play both ways.

“We’ve been lucky though. There are some kids that have talent that have kind of gotten skipped so we’ve been able to either get them as a preferred walk-on like Justin Hardy was, or we’ve had some kids that have come with no promises like Bryce Williams.”

East Carolina’s due diligence has paid off. This season alone, the Pirates have received 32 starts from former walk-ons.

While Hardy has become the poster boy for walk-on success, his tale is hardly the only one. Senior wide receiver Cam Worthy caught six passes for 224 yards to lead ECU to a 28-21 victory over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech, while senior linebacker Brandon Williams is the second-leading tackler.

Sophomore wide receiver Jimmy Williams, who like Hardy played QB in high school and drew little interest from Div. I schools, has blossomed. The elusive wideout caught 12 passes for 174 yards in the first four games before suffering an ankle injury.

Then there’s junior cornerback Josh Hawkins, who was lightly recruited and then backed off due to his academics.

“Back then, I wasn’t thinking (about those things). My grades weren’t the best. They were good, but they weren’t what I needed them to be, and that forced me to walk-on,” Hawkins said. “Winston-Salem State had offered me a half-scholarship, but I was like, ‘You know what? I’m better than that.’ So I walked on to East Carolina. They wanted me. They came to my school twice to see if I was clear.”

Where other schools saw a red light, McNeill saw redemption.

“I walked on and it just motivated me,” Hawkins said. “… I kept grinding and Coach said, ‘We’re going to take care of you. You’re a good kid, and we see you being something big in the future.’ And look at me now.”

Hawkins, who started a total of seven games his freshman and sophomore seasons, has transformed into East Carolina’s most dependable corner and and is tied for 18th nationally with four interceptions.

‘Perfect storm for walk-ons’

On top of having a keen eye for undervalued talent, McNeill and his staff also benefit from ECU’s location and tuition cost.

“We’re in a part of the country that’s a little bit under recruited,” Riley said. “We have a school that’s very, very affordable, especially for instate student-athletes and it’s just kind of the perfect storm for walk-ons.”

Also working in favor of the walk-ons is the fact that they are being coached by people who have walked in their shoes. Riley, along with outside receivers coach David Nichol, both began their college football careers at Texas Tech without a scholarship. Their background ensures that the non-scholarship players won’t be easily dismissed.

“You have a couple of guys here that were former walk-ons and when you’ve been there maybe you sympathize and respect those guys a little bit more and make sure they get a fair look,” Riley said.

And that’s really what it’s all about. Walk-ons don’t just come to East Carolina to be used as fodder for the scout team, they come because they know if they work hard they will get the same chance as the four-star recruit lined up next to them.

They see players like Hardy go from overlooked athlete to team leader and record holder, which validates everything they are told by coaches the second they walk on to the East Carolina campus.

“I think at East Carolina the way Ruff does it is that we give walk-ons a chance. Everybody says they do, but not everybody does,” Riley said. “We get guys to come in here and whether you’re a walk-on guy or a scholarship guy you’re going to get the same opportunity.”

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