Changing conferences with confidence

Published 10:17 am Wednesday, August 6, 2014



Pirates head into new conference with plenty of leadership


For The Washington Daily News


GREENVILLE — ECU kicked off its preseason practice schedule Monday and hosted its annual media day on Tuesday, and although head coach Ruffin McNeill is well into his tenure in Greenville, it feels like a new chapter within the McNeill era.

Essentially, 2014 is the first season in which every player on ECU’s roster was either signed or accepted as a walk-on by coach McNeill. Some of the redshirt seniors, such as nose-tackle Terry Williams, were recruited by the previous head coach, Skip Holtz, but McNeill completed the signing process.

Many ECU fans and higher-ups in the Pirate Club undoubtedly wanted ECU to receive an invite to the former Big East a few years ago, but with all the continuity within the Pirate coaching staff and personnel, 2014 looks like an ideal time for the Pirates’ move into the American Athletic Conference.

Gone is the era of McNeill’s immersion into his alma mater’s program; year five is the first to mark a process of “reloading” positional talent rather than having to rebuild, considering every player has received McNeill’s training process, carried out by renowned strength coach Jeff Connors.

But McNeill looks for more than just football talent with his recruits. His players are a reflection of himself: hardworking, media-savvy, family-oriented — all of which Athletic Director Jeff Compher believes can be summed up with ECU’s new marketing slogan, “Undaunted.”

“This team has the best chemistry since I’ve been here,” said senior defensive lineman Chrishon Rose. “This is my fifth year here and it’s the best group of guys I’ve been around. In the past, we had a few issues off the field with players. You won’t see that with this team. Everybody has the same goal in mind. We want to win, and coach Connors gets us mentally prepared for that in the offseason.”

“This is the largest leadership group we’ve had here,” McNeill added. “The coaches and players understand the team concept and the vision we have for the program.”

Two of the biggest stars in ECU history, quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy head into their senior seasons with a chance to prove themselves on a bigger stage. McNeill said that Carden is more than just their stat-stuffer. The senior has earned the nickname “Cap’n.”

“When ‘Cap’n’ has something to say, I shut up and listen,” McNeill joked.

The Pirates appear dangerous at receiver, defensive line and linebacker and are solid at tailback, but they will feature some new faces on the offensive line and in the secondary. Players and coaches agree that having a leadership core of Carden and Hardy on offense and vocal guys like linebackers Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton on defense smoothen out the reloading process.

“It helps having veterans like Shane, Hardy and [running back] Breon Allen in the backfield,” said sophomore offensive lineman J.T. Boyd. “Some of the younger guys on the offensive line will get down on themselves, and those guys I mentioned are the ones picking them up.”

August 30 marks the date in which the Pirates hope that leadership on the practice field carries over to game day as they take on North Carolina Central at home in the season opener.