New-Look Pirates Kick Off Spring Practice

GREENVILLE, N.C. — The new-look ECU football team began its spring practices on Friday at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex.

When the Pirates took the field for their first practice of the spring on Friday, you couldn’t help but notice the major differences in personnel.

Nowhere to be found was Shane Carden in a yellow No. 5 practice jersey or Justin Hardy swallowing up every football thrown in his direction. Also absent was Lincoln Riley, the young mastermind who orchestrated East Carolina’s high-octane offense for the last five years.

No, there were new faces at every turn.

However, when sixth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill walked over to reporters — with the help of a cane as he continues to recover from offseason hip surgery — he made one thing clear: this year’s Pirates will not not be a rebuilding project.

One of the team’s seniors and vocal leaders, linebacker Zeek Bigger, reiterated the coach’s message and even went a step further.

“We’re reloading like guns,” said Bigger, wearing a wide grin. “There’s no rebuilding around here. We’ve built the blocks.”

It should be noted that McNeill, who breaks down a football season into six phases (spring ball being phase two), understands that change is inevitable; especially considering the key players he lost.

Actually, McNeill acknowledged the turnover a few times on Friday, saying there is still plenty more he needs to learn about this collection of players.

“It’s not about winning right now. It’s about developing East Carolina’s personality and our identity right now,” said McNeill while stamping his cane into the ground. “Every team is different. The personality is different, the identity is different and it will be determined over time.”

It’s obviously going to take some time to forget about what the likes of Carden, Hardy and Riley accomplished over the last five years. No program wins that many games then effortlessly turns the page to the next chapter. In fact, newly appointed coordinator Dave Nichol even joked that he received texts from both Carden and Hardy Friday, and responded to them by texting back, “stop rubbing it in.”

When Riley left for greener pastures at Oklahoma, Nichol was already the coordinator-in-waiting. It was McNeill’s idea of trying to maintain as much staff continuity as possible and keeping things as close to the same as possible, which was exactly what Nichol told the players in his first meeting as the Pirates’ coordinator.

“We’re not going to change anything,” quarterback Kurt Benkert remembered Nichol saying in that meeting. Upon learning about Nichol’s promotion in late January, Benkert added, “I was so happy. He called me and I was just telling him how excited I am. It wouldn’t have been bad if anyone else had come in. It was just being familiar with the person that’s been here."

Benkert, a 6-foot-3 220-pound red-shirt sophomore, was Carden’s backup for the last two seasons and is now the frontrunner to replace him this fall. But neither McNeill nor Nichol would rule out senior Cody Keith, incoming freshman John Jacobs or JUCO transfer Blake Kemp from competing for the starting job.

However, Keith, who missed all of last season due to elbow surgery, will be held out of spring practice for reasons McNeill said were “just precautionary” and Jacobs won't join the team until the summer. The beneficiary from all this is Benkert, who will now get the majority of the first-team reps in the spring.

“Right now it’s Kurt and Blake getting most of them,” Nichol said. “I kind of rep Kurt a little bit more because he was No. 2 in the fall.”

Other practice notes: McNeill announced that a total of eight players will miss the entire spring workout period because of injuries and subsequent rehabilitation efforts: OLB Jeton Beavers (right shoulder), ILB Devaris Brunson (right knee), WR Curtis Burston (lower back), TE Darren Dowdell (left leg), OL Kyle Erickson (right Achilles), OLB Pat Green (lower back), OL Ike Harris (right shoulder) and OL Tre Robertson (right/left shoulders).

Defensive lineman Terrell Stanley, who missed all of last season recovering from a car accident from last winter, practiced for the first time in over a year on Friday.

The Pirates were just in shorts on Friday and Saturday. They will don shells for the first time during their next practice on Monday.

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