If there were ever any thoughts about making a sequel to “The Replacements,” then the folks over in Hollywood better run across the country to Greenville and start filming immediately.
The sixth edition of East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates have started practice, and Keanu Reeves wasn’t the only one not on campus. Also missing were Shane Carden, ECU’s all-time leading passer; Justin Hardy, the NCAA’s all-time leader in receptions, and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, the young mastermind who presided over a unit that averaged 533 yards last season, fifth-most in the country.
In 2014, Carden threw for 4,736 yards and 30 touchdowns, while Hardy pulled in 121 passes for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns to lead ECU, ranked as high as No. 18, to an 8-5 (5-3) record in its first season in the American Athletic Conference.
Carden signed a free agent deal with the Chicago Bears; Hardy was picked in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons, and Riley is calling the plays for the Oklahoma Sooners.
The talented trio’s departure is substantial, but not insurmountable. McNeill recently stood behind the podium inside the Murphy Center looking cool as a fan as he answered questions about the program’s offseason losses.
“We lost a great group of young men last year,” McNeill said. “Those guys were embedded in the program. They left a magnificent blueprint for our program. A mold. They provided a visual example of how we want the program run.
“… The family environment is as strong as anything I’ve ever been around because it’s not lip service when we talk family environment. It’s not coaching chatter, and that’s the key.”
The Pirates will look to fill all three holes from within the organization. Former outside receivers coach Dave Nichol was promoted to offensive coordinator, and offensive staff assistant Garrett Riley, Lincoln’s brother, has been bumped up to outside receivers coach.
“(Nichol) has been in this offense since I have been in this offense, which is since 2000 (at Texas Tech),” McNeill said. “… The offense that we ran is what we run here. It’s East Carolina’s offense, but also Nick will add his own flavor like I told Lincoln (to do).”
When asked if he was being groomed by Riley, Nichol, 37, smiled and said, “Yea, I think Lincoln would laugh at that. I mean only because, shoot he’s like 10 years younger than me, so I don’t know if he was grooming me. You know what I’m saying, I don’t mean it like that. I’ve known Lincoln since he was 18 so. We’ve worked together real closely.”
Nichol has earned McNeill’s confidence, as has Isaiah Jones, the junior receiver who will be asked to take Hardy’s place as the No. 1 pass catcher. Last year Jones was second with 81 receptions and racked up 830 yards and five touchdowns.
Filling Carden’s shoes, however, might not be as simple.
The Pirates have not declared a No. 1 quarterback, but it appears that strong-armed sophomore Kurt Benkert will get the first crack. Also in the hunt are juniors Blake Kemp and Cody Keith, who has missed the past 22 months after hurting his shoulder and having Tommy John surgery.
ECU recently added another quarterback. Phillip Nelson will attempt to walk-on. Nelson made 16 starts at Minnesota from 2012-13 before transferring to Rutgers in January of 2014. Nelson was dismissed from Rutgers in May of 2014 after being charged with assault.
Nelson pleaded guilty to misdemeanor fifth-degree assault and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. His status this season is not known.
What is known is the Pirates – who kickoff the season Sept. 5 against Towson – won’t look like the 2014 version.