Injuries Create Opportunities in the Trenches

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Injuries have opened the door for competition on the offensive line as the spring game nears closer.

On Monday, East Carolina football head coach Ruffin McNeill told reporters that potential senior starting center C.J. Struyk will miss about five weeks with a right knee injury that he sustained in Saturday’s second spring scrimmage.

The injury, combined with shoulder concerns from senior offensive tackles Ike Harris and Tre Robinson, have raised questions as to what the probable line combination will be as ECU’s Purple-Gold spring game is set to kickoff on Saturday.

McNeill, however, is unconcerned about the absence of his three senior linemen as spring continues to wind down. He pointed to a group of young linemen ready to make their marks.

“Competitive depth, that’s how we recruit it,” McNeill said. “We’ve got Messiah Rice getting a ton of reps, Garrett McGhin and Des (Barmore). All of those guys are benefiting and when Ike and them come back. They need to be ready to go.”

Rice, McGhin and Barmore are all freshmen and help make up the nine underclassmen competing for jobs alone the Pirates’ offensive line. With McNeill alluding to the three freshmen as contenders in spring practice, it also puts more weight on the shoulders of upperclassmen.

Senior guard Quincy McKinney, who was a top junior college prospect before joining the program a season ago, is one of six healthy upperclassmen practicing this spring.

The challenge for the 6-foot-4, 311-pound McKinney is seeing a rotation of unfamiliar faces line up alongside of him with the inevitable return of Struyk, Robinson and Harris.

Sophomore guards Larry Williams and Brandon Smith were both listed as candidates for the right guard position on the spring depth chart.

“I feel like it’s just an opportunity to get all of the younger guys caught up to speed,” McKinney said. “We have redshirts and guys that didn’t play last year and I’m trying to help them out. There’s some new energy around here and I feel like the o-line hasn’t even touched the ceiling of how good we can be.”

The expectation for the group of linemen will more than likely be to build on the success that they had a season ago.

Last season, the starting line of Harris, Dontae Levingston, McKinney, J.T. Boyd and graduated center senior Taylor Hudson, allowed just 21 sacks and helped the running game average 161.1 yards per game.

With Hudson as the only departure from the trenches, this year’s squad will have an abundance of experience once the Pirates’ trio of injured linemen returns to practice. For now, though, it’s the challenge of finding consistency with the younger players that has proven to be the most daunting.

“We’ve got some talent,” said first year offensive line coach Brad Davis. “Right now we’re really inconsistent up front. We’ve done some really good things and some other things not so well. I’m trying to build a level of toughness to this unit. I’m not disappointed in the direction we’re going but I wish we had about ten more practices.”

With 18 offensive linemen on the roster and 15 of them actively practicing, Davis was reluctant to name a unit that he was comfortable with starting in the spring game. Rather, he alluded to open competition at every position up front.

“I’m a guy that believes in competition,” said Davis. “By no means do I think that I’m going to have five guys that are going to be the guy and that I’ll just shelf the rest of the guys. I’m fully committed to developing the depth of my group. The strength of the team is the youth and the more experience they get, the better chance they have of growing up.”

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