Walk-ons highlight East Carolina secondary

Published 4:43 pm Friday, August 28, 2015

ECU ATHLETIC MEDIA RELATIONS | CONTRIBUTED HUMBLE BEGINNING: East Carolina Josh Hawkins, a walk-on, is looking to lock down the secondary from the field corner position this season.

HUMBLE BEGINNING: East Carolina Josh Hawkins, a walk-on, is looking to lock down the secondary from the field corner position this season.

GREENVILLE — The East Carolina football team under Ruffin McNeill has become a haven for overlooked high school players that choose to take the walk-on path to a high-level FBS program.

With the Shane Carden-Justin Hardy era now a thing of the past, no unit on the Pirate roster boasts the level of walk-on talent held by the secondary.

Entering the season, two of the Pirate’s four starters came to ECU as walk-ons. Josh Hawkins will start at field corner this season as a fifth-year senior, while junior Terrell Richardson will start at strong safety to open the season.

Hawkins walked-on to the team in his freshman season after the Winston-Salem native led Forsyth County in rushing yards his senior year in high school. Defensive coordinator Rick Smith saw something in Hawkins and made him a cornerback. Hawkins said his relationship with Smith inspires him to be a better player.

“Rick Smith, I’ll tell you, he keeps me going,” said Hawkins. “Sometimes I can veer off and lose focus. But this camp, I’ve really been working on being more focused, more in tune, because this is my last year and I do want to reach that next level. But coach (Smith) definitely lights a fire under me, he keeps me going, he keeps me level-headed and keeps me focused.”

Richardson came to ECU with a strong grasp on the Pirates’ walk-on program. He appeared in 12 games last season and finished with 20 total tackles.

“When I came to ECU, I knew they had a history of allowing walk-ons a legit opportunity to play,” Richardson said. “When I came here I already knew that I was going to have a chance to play some and possibly start down the line.”

Smith said the biggest key to Richardson earning a starting role for the 2015 season was his commitment to pushing himself.

“He’s got tremendous work ethic,” said Smith. “I was amazed how well he played last year. He had only played about 10 reps the whole season when he had to go in against Tulsa and play the rest of the game. Then he played the whole game against Central Florida and against Florida in the bowl game and he graded out a winner in all three games.”

Richardson got his chance to start after then-senior Lamar Ivey broke his thumb last season. Most of Richardson’s tackles came in his final three outings of the season when he was relied on at strong safety.

The junior is in his first season under scholarship and said it is a big burden off of his shoulders.

“It’s very exciting (to get a scholarship). Today is an exciting by itself because I was able to go into the bookstore and just get all my books and not having to worry about what books to get,” said Richardson.

For the walk-ons, it’s a special kind of bond. Backup boundary corner Bobby Fulp received his scholarship earlier this year, which made Hawkins reflect on receiving his own scholarship.

“When I got my scholarship, I remember guys telling me how it motivated them to get their scholarship because they were walk-ons, too,” Hawkins said. “We were all proud of him because I know that feeling where it’s just relief and a bunch of weight lifted off your shoulders. (Fulp) comes out here every day and works like he doesn’t have a scholarship and that’s the way to always be.”

Fulp will see time at boundary this season, but senior Rocco Scarfone will get the starts at the position. Fulp, only a sophomore, has time to let his game develop before seeing the field for more than about 30 percent of plays, according to Smith.

So how does ECU end up as the destination for these missed high school recruits that turn in to starters for a top-tier “group of five” team? Smith believes location and atmosphere play one of the biggest roles.

“I think a lot of these kids are from eastern North Carolina and come from small schools and they get overlooked because someone’s not going to go. They’re going to fly into Raleigh and hit as many schools as they can in one day,” said Smith. “We’re just sitting here in Greenville, which is kind of a country atmosphere, and those kids like the country atmosphere and mom and daddy can drive an hour and a half and see him play. I think that helps us with the country kids. We’re a country school.”

This, along with the reputation built by the program to give playing time on an “earned” basis rather than anything else, has turned the Pirates into a hotbed for overlooked talent.

The ECU secondary, which has struggled in years past, will have its first opportunity to showcase its new group on Sept. 5 against Towson at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.