Pirate football set to begin spring schedule

Published 1:26 pm Thursday, March 19, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS SLIGHT EDGE: ECU’s Kurt Benkert is one of three quarterbacks competing for the starting job next season. Benkert is the only one that took snaps in 2014.

SLIGHT EDGE: ECU’s Kurt Benkert is one of three quarterbacks competing for the starting job next season. Benkert is the only one that took snaps in 2014.


ECU Athletic Media Relations


GREENVILLE — After completing its first season in the American Athletic Conference with an 8-5 overall record in 2014 and making its eighth bowl appearance in the last nine years, East Carolina will turn the page and begin its 2015 campaign with the start of spring drills Friday inside the Cliff Moore Practice Facility.

Sixth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill said he and his staff are looking forward to hitting the gridiron for the season’s first organized practice session after beginning offseason preparations in mid-January.

“I’m excited to get started,” McNeill said. “Everything is new, from the staff adjustments to the staff additions to the new players that are going to be stepping up in new positions, establishing themselves as leaders on this team. We’ll have guys who will be earning their way as leaders, then moving up to become starters. Earning is the key word here as there is a new leadership core already emerging that is beginning to have a very positive effect on the team and program.”

Although a trio of national headliners wrapped up their respective careers against Florida in the Birmingham Bowl, the Pirates enter the spring practice period with perhaps their most experienced roster in the McNeill era. ECU returns nearly 80 percent of its lettermen from a year ago, including 11 positional starters (six on offense and five on defense).

Offensively, McNeill and newly-appointed coordinator Dave Nichol will have to fill five openings — four of which come at the skill positions. Defensively, the Pirates will address two openings each at linebacker, in the secondary and on the line. On special teams, finding a replacement for East Carolina’s career scoring leader Warren Harvey at placekicker will be a priority.

ECU will approach the spring aiming to keep the consistency of one of college football’s most productive aerial attacks. Led by quarterback Shane Carden during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 campaigns, the air game flourished in the spread system as the Pirates ranked among the best FBS squads statistically — standing 36th, 11th and third nationally in passing offense during those respective seasons.

Producing similar numbers without Carden and the NCAA’s all-time receptions leader, Justin Hardy, will arguably be viewed by many as one of the more daunting endeavors for any program to face this season. The pair, plus 1,000-yard pass catcher Cam Worthy, completed their eligibility in early January after record-breaking Pirate careers.

While Nichol has not labeled a starter on the pre-spring depth chart, several candidates are viable and capable options to fill the void left by Carden — sophomore Kurt Benkert and juniors Cody Keith and Blake Kemp. Benkert and Keith have played in backup roles while Kemp was redshirted last fall after transferring from Mesa (Ariz.) Community College.

Of the three, Benkert was the only one who took snaps in 2014. The Cape Coral, Fla. native appeared in three games and completed eight-of-10 passes for 58 yards, while also rushing for 23 yards and a pair of touchdowns on five carries.

Keith, who was seven-of-11 for 57 yards in three contests as Carden’s top understudy in 2013, will experience a limited role for precautionary reasons this spring to fully complete a year-long rehabilitation assignment for an elbow injury.

The lefty Kemp directed Mesa to a pair of bowl games during his two-year junior college career, throwing for 2,961 yards and 27 TDs on 229-of-352 passing as a sophomore team captain in 2013.

Although East Carolina lost 2014 rushing leader Breon Allen to graduation, four ball carriers who combined for 1,103 yards and 11 touchdowns return to the Pirate backfield. Seniors Chris Hairston and Cory Hunter, along with sophomores Anthony Scott and Marquez Grayson collectively averaged nearly six yards per carry and should key a multi-pronged ground attack. East Carolina welcomed Virginia Tech transfer Chris Mangus into its program last year and the junior will open his first spring on the Pirates’ active roster.

While the departures of Hardy, an Associated Press All-America selection, and Worthy will certainly be felt, ECU’s pass-catching corps returns plenty of playmakers from last year’s group. Headlining the list are junior inside receiver Isaiah Jones, who stood second on the unit in receptions (81) and touchdowns (five), and senior All-American Athletic Conference selection Bryce Williams, who tallied four scoring grabs from the tight end position in 2014. In addition, juniors Davon Grayson and Jimmy Williams, and sophomore Trevon Brown each surpassed 200 receiving yards a year ago despite missing playing time because of injuries.

Perhaps one of the deepest positions in the entire Pirate program is the offensive line, which lost just one letterman, albeit a good one in all-conference performer Taylor Hudson at center. Heading into the spring, the group is anchored by three seniors — left tackle Ike Harris, left guard Quincy McKinney and right tackle Dontae Levingston. Junior J.T. Boyd, who was ECU’s top right guard in 2014, will move over one slot and take reps at center along with veteran C.J. Struyk, while sophomore Larry Williams will get an early look to replace Boyd. In all, new line coach and run game coordinator Brad Davis will open drills with 18 linemen on his positional roster to work with.

“One of the things that I wanted to begin five years ago was to build competitive depth where you have guys who understand not only the systems offensively, defensively and on special teams, but the entire process as well,” McNeill said. “They understand the work ethic that’s involved and the team sacrifice that’s involved. Regardless of the changes we’ve had, the machine keeps working.”

On the defensive side of the ball, third-year coordinator Rick Smith’s philosophy has always been to stop the run and be stingy on third down — two areas which held true to form last year. The Pirates ranked among the top rush defense units in the nation, standing 11th after surrendering just 111.8 yards per game, while finishing 13th at the FBS level in third down percentage by allowing a paltry 34.2 conversion clip.

While Smith returns a deep crew that consists of 29 lettermen, including ECU’s top tackler in inside linebacker Zeek Bigger, he must also overcome the loss of two starters from the secondary, two from the linebacking unit and two up front.

Senior Johnathon White represents the Pirates’ lone returning starter from the line in 2014, but the trenches should be well-manned with plenty of experience in juniors Fred Presley (end), K’Hadree Hooker (end) and Dimitri McGill (nose). Additionally, East Carolina will embrace the return of senior end Terrell Stanley to active status after making a comeback from a serious auto accident 13 months ago that followed a 10-TFL, seven-sack campaign in 2013.

ECU’s linebacking corps was the heartbeat of the Pirates’ defense last fall, especially the 140-tackle effort by Bigger that earned the senior All-American Athletic Conference honors. While Bigger manned the “Mike” position, the other interior slot is open after the departure of Brandon Williams, who also reached a triple-digit stop total with 124. Smith is hopeful junior Devaris Brunson will answer the bell in August following rehabilitation work for a knee injury that sidelined him for most of the 2014 season.

On the outside, senior Montese Overton appears poised for honors candidacy after standing third in tackles (68) and second in TFLs (11.5) a year ago. A former walk-on, sophomore Joe Allely, has enjoyed a quick rise on the two-deep and will begin spring drills competing with junior Reece Speight at the “Will” position to replace departed senior Maurice Falls.

From a starter’s standpoint, the Pirates said goodbye to cornerback Detric Allen and strong safety Lamar Ivey in the secondary, but welcome back 2014 Jim Thorpe Award Semifinalist Josh Hawkins at the other corner spot and free safety Domonique Lennon. From a personnel angle, the defensive backfield boasts plenty of depth with 19 rostered players entering the spring.

Hawkins topped all ECU defenders in interceptions (five) and pass breakups (11) last fall, while senior Rocco Scarfone and junior DaShaun Amos will battle for Allen’s old job. Scarfone, who made his first collegiate start against Florida in the Birmingham Bowl, booked 11 stops, while Amos netted 18 in 13 contests.

Smith expects some stiff competition at both safety positions, where Lennon will be pushed by sophomores Travon Simmons and Bobby Fulp, who both emerged as clutch performers down the stretch in 2014. While Lennon finished fourth on the unit with 65 stops, Simmons opened the bowl clash against the Gators and responded with a forced fumble and three tackles.

At strong safety, a pair of battle-tested juniors in Terrell Richardson (20 tackles) and DaShawn Benton (14) will vie for their first full-time starting position, while redshirt freshman Blake Norwood figures into Smith’s plans as well.

Although the offensive and defensive rosters feature plenty of depth, special teams coordinator Kirk Doll will be looking to identify critical missing elements of his unit.

Following the loss of Harvey, punt returner Hardy and deep snapper Charlie Coggins, Doll will certainly be in evaluation mode for prospects at those positions. Junior Davis Plowman, who has experienced action in nine games and is a perfect four-of-four in PATs since transferring into the ECU program in 2013 is the early kicking favorite with walk-ons Connor Torruella and Alex Mattes also in the mix.

Sophomore Colton Oliver admirably handled short snaps in 2014 and could be in line to serve both capacities this season. Ray Guy Award Watch list candidate Worth Gregory returns for his junior campaign after enjoying a notable debut in a Pirate uniform last fall with a 43.6 yards-per-boot average.

“This personality of this team will be totally different and as a coach you look forward to finding out what that is,” McNeill added. “That’s the exciting part for me. We had a great off season where the chemistry was very positive, and now we’ll move to the second phase where that will continue to develop.”

After Friday’s outing, East Carolina will return to the practice complex Saturday morning before beginning its customary Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday workout schedule during the next four weeks. After planning on spending the first two practice sessions in shorts, ECU is scheduled to conduct its first pad workout on Monday in preparation efforts for scrimmages March 28 and April 11 prior to playing the annual spring game April 18.