Fall Camp Journal: Offense to Balance Attack

GREENVILLE, N.C. – Despite running the Air Raid offense, East Carolina will feature a more balanced offense with its surplus of talent in the backfield.

During the spring, one of the most prominent story-lines was the deterioration of the Pirate backfield. Vintavious Cooper was suspended following a drug citation, Chris Hairston suffered a left shoulder injury despite a promising start to the spring and Michael Dobson changed his position to free safety.

Fast-forward to fall camp: Cooper is back on the team, Hairston is healthy and two more capable backs – Breon Allen and Marquez Grayson – have been added to the equation. Thus, what was originally a concern is now one of the team's strengths.

Despite how deep the Pirates are in the backfield, the offense's bread and butter under head coach Ruffin McNeill has always been throwing the football.

"When you start doing the stats, we are a pretty balanced football team, but we throw the football for a living, not for a hobby," said McNeill. "Being able to throw efficiently will help our run game. Being able to run the football will help the passing game."

When the Pirates do run the ball, Cooper will likely be the feature back. During the first half of last season, the coaching staff was committed to its "running back by committee" philosophy before Cooper broke out and subsequently, received the bulk of the carries down the stretch.

With his 1,049 rushing yards, Cooper was the first Pirate back to eclipse the century mark since Dominique Lindsay in 2009. Now that he's more comfortable with the offense, Cooper has set his bar high for himself in 2013.

"I can't say what my individual stat for myself is," said Cooper with a large grin across his face, "but I definitely will hold myself up to a good standard this year. I definitely look to better myself from last year."

Prior to his emergence, Cooper flew under the radar and with the team's surplus of talent at running back, ECU is hoping for lightning to strike twice. Let's meet the candidates.

At Snow College (Ephraim, Utah), Allen was JUCO's leading rusher with 1,632 yards on the ground in 2012. Only standing at 5-foot-8 and weighing in at 190 pounds, Allen is a scat-back who can hit a home run at any time with his explosive speed. Cooper, a former JUCO transfer, was in Allen's shoes last year, but started slowly for the Pirates.

"With (Allen) coming in the same route I did, I just told him that the main thing is to learn the playbook … the faster you learn it, and if you're healthy enough, the faster you'll touch the field. We definitely can rely on Breon a lot and I definitely have seen that he's one those running backs that can be a play-maker," said Cooper.

After reportedly turning down offers to Clemson, Duke, Minnesota, N.C. State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Virginia Tech, Grayson has burst onto the scene at ECU and could see significant playing time as true freshman. The 6-foot-1, 200 pounder from Lexington, N.C., rushed for 887 yards and 8 touchdowns his senior season, despite only playing seven games due to an injury.

"I really liked what I've seen from Marquez Grayson these first few days. We knew he was pretty good, we knew we got a steal there, and that looks to be absolutely true," said offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.

Injuries have hampered Hairston during his first two-plus seasons at ECU. In addition to his shoulder concern this spring, Hairston suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2011 to prompt a redshirt. Now a redshirt sophomore, he will be given every opportunity to play just as long as he can stay on the field.

Sophomore Cory Hunter has often times been overlooked in the conversation. Hunter, who received the lion-share of carries during the spring, impressed in April's Purple-Gold game with a touchdown and in Saturday's scrimmage, rushed for 33 yards on just four rushes.

We'll have to wait until Aug. 31 to see who pans out in the backfield, but if history is any indication, expect some of ECU's new faces to make substantial contributions.

"We've had a guy step up really every year," said Riley. "I would suspect one or two of those guys will be household names after this year."

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