Pirates prepare for first season in American Athletic Conference

Published 12:59 pm Monday, March 24, 2014




By Daniel Hunt

For The Washington Daily News

ECU spring practice officially began Friday, and coming off a 10-win season and a bowl win, the Cliff Moore Practice Facility is buzzing with excitement and expectations.

To many, the upcoming senior seasons of quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy are enough to promise the Pirates a smooth transition into the American Athletic Conference (AAC) in 2014. The prolific duo connected for 1284 yards in 2013 and have accounted for 2,286 total yards since Shane Carden took over the quarterback role in ECU’s second game of the season in 2012. Pirate fans are hoping 2014 will be an explosive finale for the two.

Carden will have plenty of other targets returning, and dangerous ones at that.

“Our skills positions are really deep,” said head coach Ruffin McNeill. “We have some guys that have played and some young guys that are really ‘biting the bit’ to get back on the field.”

Isaiah Jones accounted for 62 catches, 604 receiving yards and five touchdowns a season ago as a freshman, and with him operating from the slot, there is no reason to think he can’t be the next Justin Hardy. Bryce Williams caught 20 balls for 220 yards and five touchdowns in 2013, using his 6-6, 240 pound frame effectively. Junior Cedric Thompson and redshirt freshman Darren Dowdell should be in the mix at inside receiver, as well as Washington’s own Jimmy Williams, who was impressive early in 2013 before fracturing his foot against Middle Tennessee and missing the rest of the season.

On the outside, senior Cam Worthy will operate at the ‘X’ position, coming off an explosive finish to the 2013 season. Fan favorite, sophomore Davon Grayson will join him there, returning from a knee injury that ended his promising campaign last year (17 catches, 168 yards and five touchdowns through six games). The coaches have also been high on freshman Curtis Burston, while speedy sophomore DaQuan Barnes, sophomore Brandon Bishop and redshirt freshman Trevon Brown will be battling for time at the ‘Z’.

The Vintavious Cooper era is over at running back. Senior Breon Allen, junior Chris Hairston, redshirt freshman Marquez Grayson and former walk-on, junior Corey Hunter will all be in the mix for first team with no clear favorite heading into spring.

The Pirates appear solid at the skill positions, but questions surround the offensive line. After the graduation of three key seniors and long-term injury to three positional contenders (Ike Harris, C.J. Struyk and Christian Matau), the Pirates are currently left with eight players to fill the five positions. The coaches are surely anxiously awaiting the arrival of their junior college commits. Junior Stewart Hinson, redshirt freshman Larry Williams, senior Taylor Hudson, sophomore J.T. Boyd and junior Tre Robertson are listed as the starters, while Will Foxx, Marquis Wallace and Brandon Smith round out the reserves. Robertson received some action last year due to injury, but Taylor Hudson is the only long-term starter practicing right now.

“I definitely have to step up and be a leader,” said Hudson. “We have a lot of young guys. They have talent. They just need to work hard and get the game plan down.”

As was the case last year defensively, the Pirates should be led by their front seven. Even with the graduations of main-stays like Derrell Johnson, Lee Pegues and Kyle Tudor and the departure of would-be senior Jeremy Grove (injury), the Pirates appear stacked with depth across the front seven.

They are led by inside linebackers Brandon Williams (senior) and junior Zeek Bigger. Intriguing sophomores Cameron White and Devaris Brunson will back up their positions respectively. Senior Maurice Falls has an inside track to start at the ‘will’ position on the outside, opposite the possible NFL prospect, junior Montese Overton. Sophomores Dayon Pratt and Reece Speight should receive playing time on the outside, as well as senior Jack Geary when he returns from injury.

Along the line, senior Chrishon Rose will return to defensive end, opposite the side of junior Jonathan White. Senior Terrell Stanley should be expected to receive his usual playing time if he can fully recover from the injuries caused by a car accident on Feb. 12. Former North Carolina State transfer, sophomore K’Hadree Hooker and sophomore Fred Presley round out the two-deep.

At nose tackle, arguably the most important position in the 3-4 defensive set, Terry Williams is poised to start for the third consecutive season with sophomore Demetri McGill behind him.

The Pirates lost four key seniors to graduation in the secondary, but the new starters should all have previous game experience.

“You’re not going to find a better secondary coach than Rick Smith,” said McNeill. “When you look back, a lot of those guys were on special teams and those reps count too. We exposed these guys during the bowl game during practices. They’re ready to go.”

Coming off a stellar workout offseason, senior Detric Allen will likely be asked to cover top receivers at the boundary position. Junior Josh Hawkins should start at field corner, while sophomore DaShaun Amos will surely be used, whether as a nickel or starting over Allen. Redshirt freshman DaShawn Benton, junior Rocco Scarfone and true freshman Travis Phillips are listed on the three deep.

The Pirates lost safety standouts Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson, so safety may be an area of concern, but the coaches are confident in junior Dominique Lennon (strong safety), and senior Lamar Ivey (free safety) reportedly had an outstanding offseason. Sophomore Terrell Richardson, true freshman Cody Purdie, sophomore Nate Mays and redshirt freshman Travon Simmons are all in consideration, while DaShaun Amos could move to safety if needed according to Defensive Coordinator Rick Smith.

Daniel Hunt is The Washington Daily News fall sports intern, who will be covering ECU football. He can be contacted by email at sports@thewashingtondailynews.com.