Big shoes to fill

Published 6:48 pm Thursday, September 1, 2011

Former East Carolina wide receiver Dwayne Harris (17) in action during the Pirates victory over N.C. State last season. As the ECU enters the 2011season they must figure out how to replace not only as a receiver but also as a returner. (AP Photo

GREENVILLE — Equipped with an army of pass catchers, replacing Dwayne Harris at wide receiver will be difficult, but not impossible for East Carolina. However, trying to duplicate what he brought to the Pirates special teams might prove to be bit more challenging.
Harris, the Pirates all-time leader in receptions (268) and receiving yards (3,001), excelled as a No. 1 target for the team over the last four years, but it was during punt and kickoff returns where his jaw-dropping moves took center stage.
Slippery and explosive, the 6-foot, 205-pounder was named the Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Year in 2009, and in 2010 was named the conference MVP before being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth round of the NFL draft.
East Carolina special teams coach Clay McGuire knows replacing the man with fleet feet is no easy feat, but he feels confident this year’s group can get the job done.
“Return-wise, we have a big hole to fill trying to replace Dwayne Harris but right now I feel pretty good,” ECU special teams coach Clay McGuire said. “We have one of our biggest playmakers in Lance Lewis back there catching punts and we also have Danny Webster back there.
“(Kickoff returns) is kind of wide open. We have Reggie Bullock, Alex Owah, Torrance Hunt and a whole slew of guys that can be a kickoff return guy. It’s a process and you can’t really tell until you see who really stands out. We’ll try to figure that out as it goes.”
The group may be talented but it is also untested. Senior Lance Lewis is the team’s top target at wide receiver, but he has never returned a punt in a Pirate uniform. The same goes for true freshman WR Webster. Bullock, who won the starting RB job, is a JUCO transfer and will be playing his first game as a Pirate on Saturday when the team opens up the season against No. 12 South Carolina, while Hunt is a sophomore RB who has also never caught a kickoff at ECU.
There are no players on the roster who have returned punts for the Pirates. Senior WR Michael Bowman (11-24.4 ypr), who is suspended for the first game due to his arrest for disorderly conduct this summer, and sophomore RB Michael Dobson (8-13.1 ypr) are the only returning players who caught kickoffs last season.
McGuire said each position requires a different skill set.
“Our ideal punt return guy is kind of like a point guard. It’s a guy that can handle the ball really well and has a great feel for the game. He needs to feel things around him without seeing it and make that first guy miss and get yardage from there,” McGuire said. “On kickoff returns we’re looking for a guy who can catch it and go. A guy who can catch it and get going as fast as he can, as quick as possible.”
While having a speedster return kicks and punts is ideal, McGuire said it means nothing if he doesn’t have good hands.
“You might have the fastest guy in the world back there but if he can’t catch we’re not going to put him there,” McGuire said. “
Most return guys are generally under six-feet tall and fit the “jitterbug” stereotype. However, standing at 6-foot-3-inches, Lewis, who was named to the preseason C-USA team after he caught 89 passes for 1,116 yards and a school-record 14 TDs last year, breaks that mold.
“He looks good back there,” McGuire said. “If you go back he was a great basketball player in high school. He’s got great ball skills and when you look back at the film from last year he made some really good runs after the catch. I’m excited about it.”
Heading into the season, Lewis is viewed as the team’s best receiver, which makes playing him on special teams a bit of a risk-reward scenario because it increases the chances of him getting injured.
“Well, that’s part of it, but he could get hurt getting off of a bus,” McGuire said. “Now, all of us obviously pray that, that never happens to anybody but you can’t go around and not play guys because of the fear they might get hurt. You can get hurt on the backside of a play just as easily as you can if you were catching a punt. We did the same thing with Dwayne last year. Those guys are horses and they are out there because they want to contribute to the team.”