On a crystal-clear, mid-50s Saturday afternoon in December, East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill paced the Cliff Moore Practice Facility looking for stars without a telescope.
In front of him, a collection of Pirates who are not likely to play against Florida in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3 line up for a scrimmage. Consider it their bowl game.
Since McNeill began his tenure at East Carolina five years ago, he has implemented weekly scrimmages that help the younger players and inexperienced upperclassmen get consistent gamelike repetitions, while giving the coaching staff a better means to evaluate their talent. The exhibitions have not only been vital to growth of the players, but the team.
“It gets young players involved, but also some guys that are involved in the travel team that need more reps,” McNeill said. “… We’ve been doing them for 15 years. We started them at Texas Tech and we’ve done them here. It’s a way to prepare.
“Those guys on the ‘victory team’ – some (schools) call them ‘look teams’ or ‘scout teams,’ we call them ‘victory teams’ – they run every other team’s offense, defense and specials teams and don’t get much of a chance in our own schemes. So every Thursday, they get 20-25 snaps and they’re live.”
If all goes well, what coaches see on those Thursday nights, fans might see on future Saturdays.
First glimpse of Carden
Shane Carden has fond memories of running the victory team. Carden since has established school records for passing yards, touchdown passes and completions, while helping Justin Hardy become the NCAA’s all-time leader in receptions.
But Carden still vividly remembers playing in ECU’s weekly scrimmages for players on the outside of the two-deep looking in.
For the senior quarterback, who recently was named the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, there is one particular Thursday night battle that is stored in his memory alongside all his other ECU football moments.
“I remember one time we had a scrimmage out here it was raining so hard we couldn’t see the other side of the practice field,” Carden said. “We stayed out and we scrimmaged. We will always remember that. We’ve talked about it a bunch of times this year, saying, ‘Hey, remember that one time on a Thursday night it was raining so hard and we had all those huge hits. … But, we did all right, the offense ran pretty good.”
The scrimmage, which took place during Carden’s freshman year, featured a slew of future impact players.
“When you look back at that film we had guys like me, Hardy and (former starting linebackers) Jeremy Grove and Kyle Tudor on the other side. All those guys that did a lot for us,” Carden said.
Carden, whose 4,309 passing yards was second in the nation after the regular season, said those scrimmages offered much more than just fond memories.
“You get to stay sharp on the offense. If you don’t have those than you go your entire season without really running the offense at all. On scout team you just run the other team’s offense,” Carden said. “It’s great. You get to run the offense, then watch film on yourself. … Any reps you can get in the offense it helps you.”
It helps coaches, too. Carden soon will be gone, but the games will continue. Kurt Benkert, his backup, hasn’t played in many weekly Thursday night showdowns this season for precautionary reasons, but took part in the recent Saturday scrimmage.
Benkert, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound redshirt freshman, is expected to compete for the starting job next year with Cody Keith and Blake Kemp. He understands the value of these scrimmages.
“They’re really important because that’s mainly the only live period that I get,” said Benkert, who has completed eight of his 10 passes this season. “The speed is a lot different, and you get to gauge where you’re at with everyone else.”
The scrimmages also were vital to sophomore wide receiver Jimmy Williams, who starred as a quarterback at Washington High School before walking on at East Carolina.
“Thursday night was pretty much our game night,” said Williams, whose Thursday night exploits helped him crack the two-deep roster as a freshman last season. “We didn’t travel with the team, it was pretty much our last practice of the week. You looked at it like a game. I looked at it as a chance to get better. You’re going live every play. I went as hard as I could.”
While most of the players get a chance to show off their skills on the scout team, the weekly scrimmages offer them the opportunity to show what they can do in the Pirates’ system.
“I was a part of it for two or three years and it gave us the opportunity to go out and play. We didn’t get a shot to go in the games, we were always watching,” said senior center Taylor Hudson, who was tabbed a first-team All-American Athletic Conference member. “… Playing offensive line, we got to learn the scheme. Those Thursday games we got to run our offense instead of doing it on the scout team. You really learned what you were doing.”
The scrimmages are filmed and studied by both the players and the coaching staff. Should those players not get on the field during the season, they at least know what they need to work on to improve their odds next year.
“It benefits them greatly. It benefits us so that we know what we have,” McNeill said. “It helps us determine what a particular player might need to work on and gets them into our offensive and defensive packages and even our special teams packages.
“So when we go into spring they’re ready. When they go into the offseason with (strength and conditioning) coach (Jeff) Connors, they know what their strengths and their weaknesses are.”
At this time last year, redshirt freshman running back Marquez Grayson was a regular Thursday night warrior. This season, the 6-1, 200-pounder is averaging 6.1 yards per attempt, while his 289 rushing yards is the third-highest total on the team.
“Going through those Thursday nights I tried to really put myself in the game,” Grayson said. “… Those games last year helped me a lot, to be honest. With me not having that much experience coming in it’s hard to kind of put yourself in that situation without actually being there. Those games simulated actual games for me.”
This year’s Birmingham Bowl showdown with the Gators will be the last game for several of the Pirates’ top players, but with the help of their weekly scrimmages, next year’s stars are already starting to burn bright.
“When you see them in your scheme you see how they fit,” McNeill said. “Take (redshirt freshman) Jacen Murphy. He’s a guy nobody knows, but he’s going to be an inside receiver. We knew he was going to be really good coming out of high school, but he did something today (Saturday). (Virginia Tech transfer running back) Chris Mangus, we know how good he is.
“Defensively, (redshirt freshman defensive lineman) Demage Bailey (played well) and (former RB turned DB) Chris Love picked off a pass today. It’s very valuable.”