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Pirates QB battle to continue

East Carolina quarterback Cody Keith (13) looks to pass while being pressured by Derrell Johnson (56) during the Pirates Purple and Gold game on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — The battle to win the starting quarterback job for East Carolina took center stage during the school’s annual Purple and Gold game on Saturday and for now it looks as if Rio Johnson will hold claim to the No. 1 spot heading into the summer.
Johnson, last year’s No. 2 QB behind the departed Dominique Davis, took snaps with the No. 1 unit on Saturday led his squad on the only touchdown-scoring drive of the day. The junior passer finished the scrimmage completing 17 of his 23 pass attempts for 153 yards and also guided his team on a field goal-scoring drive.
“It felt good (to be with the No. 1 unit) but we still have fall camp so I have to keep working hard,” Johnson said.
Freshman Cody Keith ran with the second unit and hit on nine of his 18 attempts for 69 yards and one interception while accounting for two field goals. Senior Brad Wornick finished the contest going 4-for-6 and accumulated 26 yards and had a botched screen pass returned 32 yards for a score by safety Desi Brown.
The Pirates were missing a big piece of the QB puzzle as sophomore Shane Carden sat out with a broken right index finger and won’t get back in the race until August.
“(The competition) will continue when we go back into fall camp,” East Carolina’s third-year coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We’ll get Shane back in the mix and let him get some reps under his belt too. I thought Shane was practicing well.
“I think Rio has done a great job and Brad is still Brad. I thought Cody, for a young puppy, has done a great job, so the battle will go into fall camp.”
When asked where Carden would have fit into the mix in the Purple and Gold game if he were healthy ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley took a pass saying, “Who knows. … (Johnson and Keith) both repped with the Ones some today … but Shane, with the way he was playing, he certainly would have gotten some reps with our first and second units.”
Leading the pass catchers was sophomore WR Justin Hardy who caught two passes for a game-high 48 yards, along junior Reese Wiggins who had a scrimmage-best six receptions for 47 yards.
Offensively, ECU had a bit of an inconsistent day. Hardy hauled in a 42-yard bomb from Johnson and freshman running back Chris Hairston ripped off a 36-yard run, but the Pirates also failed to connect on a few big plays and struggled to produce points.
Other than a Reggie Bullock six-yard TD run, ECU’s only other points came on field goals by Matt Millisor (24 yards), Shawn Williams (27 yards) and William Harvey (48 yards).
“We played very well in between the 20s, moved the ball probably the best we have all spring,” Riley said. “We were not very good in the red zone today. We got in there a couple of times and didn’t score. We had some things there that we just didn’t make. We missed some chances for some big plays.”
The Pirates also have a hotly contested battle going on at the running back spot and on Saturday Hairston continued to impress as he had six carries for 52 yards to lead all rushers. Bullock carried the ball 11 times for 25 yards, while junior transfer Hunter Furr and senior Michael Dobson each ran for 15 yards and junior Torrance Hunt tallied 11.
“We’d like to play three or four (RBs) and keep these guys fresh,” Riley said. “We have some small bodies with Reggie and Torrance, who aren’t realistically 25 carries-a-game type guys, but we saw some good things Hunter can do like lower his shoulder and run … Hairston did some good things too and Dobson has been really steady for us. He’s really had a good spring.”
Defensively, the Pirates looked strong in their second year running their 3-4 scheme and stymied several drives by the offense. Freshman ILB Zeek Bigger racked up a game-high eight stops and had one tackle for a loss, while corner Adonis Armstrong, a JUCO transfer, had three tackles, a pass breakup and intercepted a Keith pass that hit off the hands of receiver Justin Jones.
“I’m pleased with our overall spring. I thought our kids progressed in this defensive scheme,” ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said.
Redshirt freshman OLB Montese Overton and junior ILB Kyle Tudor also had a strong showing as they each tallied five tackles, with two resulting in lost yardage.