This Pirate team comes into spring drills after posting an 8-5 overall record last season under now fourth-year coach Ruffin McNeill. The energy level was high out there on the field despite being a light practice with only helmets and shorts.
“I really liked the way everyone was flying around out there today,” McNeill said. “I thought we attacked things well and was pleased with the way we moved around on both sides of the ball.”
Coach McNeill spoke about the quality of leadership that already exists on the team in guys like junior quarterback Shane Carden. “The older guys are taking control of the team and that's the way it should be,” McNeill said.
Shane Carden enters the spring as the returning starter at quarterback for the Pirates, something they didn’t have last season. “It’s great to get out here, the offense has really been moving around,” Carden said. “The tempo is great right now, of course with spring ball we have some things to work on, but for the most part I’m pumped for where the offense is at and we’ll just keep getting better.”
Carden finished last fall 273-of-414, for 3,116 yards and 23 touchdowns. He had the Pirates' third-highest single-season passing total in school history, after losing a nine-month quarterback competition to Rio Johnson last spring and summer.
Carden’s first start came in ECU’s third game and he never looked back, accounting for 31 of the Pirates’ 45 offensive touchdowns. In the game against the Marshall Thundering Herd later in the season, he established a Pirate single-game record with 439 passing yards and obtained ECU’s third-highest completion percentage of 80.9 on a 38-47 performance.
Junior wide-receiver Justin Hardy, the top target for Carden last season, had an explosive fall for the Pirates in 2012. A First-Team All-Conference USA selection in 2012, Hardy should lead the Pirate receiving unit next season. He finished top 25 nationally with 88 receptions for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“It’s great to see all the hard work pay off,” Hardy said. “I’ve gotten back to the basics this off-season to raise my level of play; catching, route-running and yards after catch are all really important to my success.”
The Carden to Hardy connection will be in its second season and should bring the Pirate Nation more highlight reel plays. “The chemistry is getting better by the day,” Hardy said. “The new guys we have out here are looking really good as well; it’s going to be hard to double-team anybody on our receiving corps.”
Spring drills mark the first time defensive coordinator Rick Smith has his new-look Pirate defense out on the field. Smith returns to the program after leaving in a joint-decision with former head coach Skip Holtz to the University of South Florida, where he served as their defensive coordinator.
Smith spent five years as the secondary coach for ECU, from 2005-2009. In that time, his expertise contributed to two dominant Pirate defenses that won back to back Conference USA Championships in 2008 and 2009. “He’s come in and changed things in the back end,” said outside linebacker Derrell Johnson. “He’s touched on all the basics, but the main thing he has come in and emphasized is trusting in your teammates.”
Top tacklers from last season Jeremy Grove (83 tackles), Damon Magazu (80) and Derrell Johnson (62) will all be returning for the 2013-2014 season. “It gives us experience with leaders on the field,” Johnson said. “On offense you have the quarterback that calls the shots, but on defense we have leaders all around which is one thing we can bring to the table that other things may not be able to.”
The play of this group will have to account for the losses in the secondary with the graduation of Jacobi Jenkins and Leonard Paulk, two veteran pass defenders.
Before the start of spring practice the Pirates suspended senior running back Vintavious Cooper indefinitely for an on-campus drug citation. “It’s disappointing because he’s a great kid and a close friend of mine,” Shane Carden said when asked about Cooper’s suspension. “At the same time there’s no excuses, you can’t put yourself in that kind of situation. Right now I know he’s working hard to get back on this team and he should be back by summer.”
Along with Cooper, many other Pirates will miss time this spring due to rehabilitation efforts. The list includes limited action from ILB Jeremy Grove (left shoulder) and NT/DE Terrell Stanley (left knee). Inside wide-receiver Chris Cacciola (left shoulder), DE Justin Dixon (right knee), FS Damon Magazu (back), DE Matt Milner (right hip) and RB Jamal Tillman are all expected to sit out the entire spring.
The Pirates had their first spring practice in full pads today and will have their second tomorrow, Saturday March 29, finishing their first week of spring drills 2013.