Responding to adversity

ECU's receiving corps has lost eight players since spring for a number of reasons. Inside ECU Sports was at practice to speak with players and coaches about the unit moving forward.

Since last spring ECU has lost eight receivers from their depth chart, some to injury, some to ineligibility and some to suspension. No matter the case, losing that many players at any position is tough for a team.

The most recent to go down probably hurts the most for the Pirates. True freshman standout Davon Grayson, who has caught five touchdowns already, saw his season end last week against Tulane with a knee injury.

Grayson was a top red zone target for ECU (aside from Hardy of course) and the Pirates only had one touchdown in the red zone during regulation after his loss. Head coach Ruffin McNeill believes the new guys who have stepped in can keep this team moving the direction it wants to go.

"I have great confidence in that group," said McNeill. "One, we've brought in some good football players, two, Jeff Connors is the best strength coach in the country. He's developed our kids in such a way that they are mentally and physically ready to go. Lincoln Riley, receiver coaches Dave Nichol and Donnie Kirkpatrick are great teachers. That's why you'll keep seeing guys stepping up with the opportunity. We hope the guys who are injured return soon."

Inside receivers coach Donnie Kirkpatrick knows his receiving unit has taken a hit. With that being said, he embraces the adversity and thinks it's a good learning experience for his players.

"We've had a lot of obstacles this year," Kirkpatrick said. "These kids are learning that in life it's not going to always go smooth. We have an awesome group of kids that have been resilient and have pulled together. Every time someone has been lost it's like somebody has stepped up. A lot of the times one man's tragedy can be another man's opportunity – we've been fortunate to have guys step up."

With so many players missing it has opened the door for other receivers to have their number called. Whether it's the big-bodied Marshall transfer Bryce Williams hauling one in or Reese Wiggins catching an overtime touchdown, the Pirates have been lucky with their depth.

Coach Kirkpatrick is most impressed with a different player.

"Isaiah Jones comes to my mind immediately," Kirkpatrick said. "We saw right away he was going to be mature enough and good enough to play as a true freshman. We've had a chance to get him more time because of the guys we've lost. We had to move him outside for a game or two and he did really well...when we moved him back he didn't miss a beat. He's a special kid, he has got that big frame and is tough as all get out – he's from a football family so he's used to it."

Kirkpatrick also went on to say a new face will be at receiver this week. Sophomore Cedric Thompson has earned his time and will step on the field for the first time against Southern Mississippi.

The play of junior wide receiver Justin Hardy has been ridiculous of late. Last game he had a career high in catches and yardage with 17 catches for 230 yards. He's trying to keep up his leadership role during this tough time for the receiving unit.

"We have a lot of young guys who are going to play," Hardy said. "The injuries have forced them into the situation so I try to keep them relaxed and tell them it's just like what we do in practice."

Playing under a talented and battle-hardened veteran like Hardy is a dream come true for young receivers. True freshman Isaiah Jones is taking full advantage of the chance.

"It's eye opening because he's such a great player," Jones said when asked about Hardy. "He's not the biggest or fastest, but Justin is a great football player. You want to surround yourself with great football players to get to the next level and I've really been in his back pocket asking about routes or how to do certain things. He has been helping me every step of the way like a big brother. I think Justin has the potential to play in the league."

The new-look receiving corps will take the field against Southern Mississippi in Dowdy-Ficklen this Saturday.

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