Crowded Backfield Produces Competition

GREENVILLE, N.C. — As spring practice reaches its midway point, the running back position remains a question mark ECU.

Amidst the position battles that inevitably headline spring football practice, the East Carolina offense faces questions of its own at the running back position.

Though the Pirates have a plethora of running backs both experienced and inexperienced, no one player has yet claim a stranglehold on the starting job.

The crop consisting of upperclassmen Chris Hairston, Cory Hunter, Chris Mangus, Marquez Grayson and Anthony Scott remains log-jammed in the battle for the top spot.

“You can never have enough backs,” first-year offensive coordinator Dave Nichol said. “The backs that we have, they have to get better, they need to run harder, they need to pass protect better. It’s not like we have five All-Americans or anything. They all have to get a lot better, but our whole group is like that and they’re working good.”

The senior, Hairston, is the most experienced player in the backfield and with the departure of leading rusher Breon Allen, has seen his role transform this spring.

“I’m the senior now, I’m the oldest guy here so I’m coaching up the young guys,” Hairston said. “I’m filling Breon (Allen’s) shoes, (Vintavious Cooper’s) shoes because I was being taught by those guys so I feel like I’m the older guy and I’m responsible for the backs.”

Hairston has spent the majority of his four seasons at ECU fighting for playing time as both Cooper and Allen locked down roles as the feature back during their time as Pirates.

Now, though, the tables have turned and the 6-foot, 197-pound Hairston has both the most experience in the system and the most returning production. His knowledge of the ECU offense should only help his case as Nichol admitted that finding a feature back for the upcoming season would be his first option.

“I’d like to (have a feature back) honestly, that’s my preference but I don’t know, maybe the days are gone where you have a guy that plays eighty snaps. That’s just hard to do,” Nichol said. “We haven’t been able to do it around here, but I’d love to have one.”

Perhaps standing as the dark horse to grab the feature back job is the Virginia Tech transfer Mangus. After sitting out last season in compliance with NCAA transfer rules, the 5-foot-11 back has been in the thick of the competition. He had a team-best 64-yard rushing performance, including a 48-yard touchdown against mostly third-stringers, in the first spring scrimmage.

There is one catch, however. The junior Mangus tallied all of his yards on four carries against the third team defense, something that, according to Nichol, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

“(Mangus) has done some third-team things himself,” Nichol said. “He has plenty of work to do and the way we practice, (the running backs) get a lot of reps and there are certain things that each of them need to work on to get better and they know that and if they don’t, then they can’t help us. So that’s where the competition is really good.”

Whether one of the backs grabs the feature job or the team opts to use the running back by committee approach, Head Coach Ruffin McNeill feels confident in what they all bring to the table.

“Those guys are finding their roles and finding how they fit,” said McNeill. “They’re doing a great job. I’m pleased with where they are at this state.”

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