Blacknall ready for starting role|ECU QB race down to two

Published 12:15 pm Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sports Writer

GREENVILLE – The Pirates wrapped up training camp on Monday and first-year head coach Ruffin McNeill felt positive about his first summer session with East Carolina University.
“I liked the way the kids carried over from spring to now,” McNeill said. “One of the main focuses were developing leaders and leadership. That’s still a work in progress but I have seen some guys that are stepping out and taking a hold of that.”
Two guys who have stepped up in particular are Brad Wornick and Dominique Davis. Those two, along with Rio Johnson, have been locked in a summer-long battle for the starting quarterback job and on Monday McNeill confirmed that the competition has been narrowed to just Davis and Wornick.
“Rio is going to be a really good football player. We can’t get everybody ready to play, but his time will come,” McNeill said. “Dominique and Brad have both done a really good job, and so has Rio, but we have to start getting those reps in. It’s going to come down to the wire when we choose. … It’s not anything that Rio didn’t do, we just have to start separating the group. Dominique brings experience to the bunch, he has been in games. Brad understands the offense and that’s from being around (offensive coordinator) Lincoln (Riley) for 15 days in the spring. Rio really made a big jump in maturity from the spring to right now. All three of those guys will be on the bus and all three will be on the plane with me.”
Also joining McNeill on the plane will be presumed starting free safety Derek Blacknall. The junior has grabbed a hold of the No. 1 free safety spot that was vacated by Van Eskridge and so far has not let go.
“I feel like my camp has gone pretty good,” Blacknall said. “I feel like one of my main goals is to come out here and get better every single day because if you are not getting better you are getting worse. I feel like I have had more good days than bad.”
Blacknall has switched from strong safety to free safety and is happy with the move.
“The adjustment is going pretty well,” Blacknall said. “Last year I did pretty much the same thing in the old scheme but we cover man first, deep middle second.”
Blacknall got two starts last season when safety Levin Neal suffered a knee injury and his debut did not go so well. The Pirates’ defense allowed 334 passing yards in their 35-10 loss at West Virginia and allowed 224 passing yards in their 34-17 loss at UNC.
East Carolina let up a handful of long passing plays, with Blacknall becoming the scapegoat for the defense’s lapses. To his credit, Blacknall manned up and shouldered the blame.
“I made a couple of mistakes, and when you make a mistake in the secondary it turns into six points,” Blacknall said. “I feel like I learned from those mistakes.”
Blacknall will be paired with strong safety Bradley Jacobs, a junior transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell feels they are ready.
“They are living up to what I’m asking them to do and that’s be assignment sound, can you give me great effort and make a play, and they have done everything I have asked for,” Mitchell said. “They have been warriors day in and day out. They have been beat up and bruised but yet they keep preserving and playing through it.”
Mitchell said the 5-11, 160-pound Blacknall will be asked to cover a lot in his defense.
“In our scheme that free safety is nothing but a cornerback that can tackle,” Mitchell said. “We will continue to do that so we can get to an eight-man front and put them in passing situations where the matchups are still in our favor because we have three corners on the field.”
Mitchell said Jacobs is capable of covering as well and can lend a hand in run support.
“He is a combination of both, he is a physical safety yet we can still put him in man-to-man situations and feel confident about it.”