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Pirates hit the gridiron

In this file photo, East Carolina football coach Ruffin McNeill speaks during a press conference at East Carolina University. On Monday, the Pirates began their spring practice period. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE —  For the first time in three years the East Carolina football team will not have to focus on learning a new scheme on one side of the ball or the other, but now that the Pirates have some philosophical continuity the big challenge for third-year coach Ruffin McNeill is to figure out who will be executing those Xs and Os.
Heading into the spring practice period, which began on Monday and will end on April 14th with the school’s annual Purple and Gold game, McNeill’s toughest tasks include finding a replacement for graduated star quarterback Dominique Davis, sorting through a host of largely unproven running backs and rebuilding a secondary that lost three out of its four starters from a year ago.
During a press conference on Monday, McNeill said he was ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
“Today is the first time to get around our team and meet and get on the field and get a chance to see how much (the players) have grown,” McNeill said. “For college coaches this is an exciting time because you get a chance to get on the field and see how a young man who may have played minimum reps last year has developed and come along.”
In his first year with ECU McNeill and his staff employed an Air Raid offense and switched their defense from zone to man. The change led to big numbers on both sides of the scoreboard, as well as a 6-7 record and a trip to the Military Bowl where ECU lost Maryland.
In an attempt to shore up their leaky defense, the Pirates switched from a 4-3 to a more versatile 3-4 base defense, which helped the unit jump from being ranked last in total defense (120th) in 2010 to No. 56 in 2011.
Despite the rise in defensive production, East Carolina finished last season with a 5-7 (4-4, Conference USA) record and saw their streak of five straight bowl games come to an end.
This spring Pirates will return seven starters on both offense and defense and before they can attempt to start a new string of postseason appearances they must first find a replacement for departed signal-caller Davis, who in his two years with the program set the several school records including most TD passes (62) and most completions (727).
Vying for the job will be strong-armed junior Rio Johnson, last season’s backup to Davis, along with senior Brad Wornick, the 2010 No. 2 QB, and up-and-comers Shane Carden (sophomore) and Cody Keith (freshman).
“This is a competition that I’m looking forward to,” McNeill said. “They  are four quarterbacks that I like and they understand this offense and they understand the leadership part that goes along with it.”
The battle to see who will be taking the handoffs is even more heated than the one to determine who will be giving them. ECU listed six RBs on its preseason depth chart and the group is headlined by last year’s leading rusher junior Torrance Hunt (489 yards), along with 2011 opening day starter senior Reggie Bullock (428) and junior Michael Dobson (221).
Though ECU has several rushers, none have been able to stand out as a capable every down back, which means McNeill will have to play each based on their strengths and game situations.
“We have challenged the coaching staff to identify roles: What’s this young man’s role? How can he help us win football games?,” McNeill said. “And it’s our job as a staff to put him in a position that can help us.”
The Pirates will begin the season Sept. 1 at home when they host Appalachian State.