Spring Game: An Event Unlike Any Other
When Ruffin McNeill was nothing more than a spry defensive back on the East Carolina football teams of the late 70’s, the spring game was an event he had always marked on the calendar and savored playing in. Thirty-five years since his playing days, McNeill enters his sixth season as the head coach of his alma mater. But as he prepares for the spring practice’s culminating event on Saturday, McNeill’s approach to the spring game has changed. “As a player, it was fun to play. As a coach, it’s a practice to me,” McNeill said. “The festivities are fantastic, but for me it’s an evaluation day. It’s coaching and getting guys out of there healthy.” There is something different about the spring game, though. Similar to Saturdays in the fall, there will be tailgaters out — most of them cooking and consuming pounds of pig in the lots that surround Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — and thousands of fans watching sitting in the grandstands when the "game" begins. However, aside from the obvious differences (such as the scrimmage-like format or the lack of a real opponent), the biggest contrast might be the atmosphere that McNeill referred to. Last year, inside receiver Bryce Williams caught a touchdown from former quarterback Shane Carden and celebrated the score by tossing an alley-oop lob back to Carden, who didn’t elevate nearly high enough to complete the dunk over the goalpost. If something like this happened in the fall, yellow penalty flags would likely fly all over the place and McNeill surely wouldn’t be pleased. “It’s different. You just go out there and have fun,” quarterback Kurt Benkert said. “We show the fans what our attitude as a team is.” The spring game also provides an opportunity for something special to occur. For instance, during a field goal-kicking competition at halftime of last year’s “game,” a student assistant coach held kicks for participants. The last of whom was his girlfriend, who moments later became his fiancé after he pulled out a ring and proposed as she approached her kick. However, there’s no better example of the potential magic that can happen in the spring game than what happened two years ago. On the last play of the scrimmage, then-offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley told eight-year old Noah Roberts, who McNeill kept around the team upon learning about the rare genetic neurological disorder he possessed, to carry the ball and follow former tight end Zico Pasut to the end zone. The execution was perfect, and shortly after crossing the goal line, Roberts was being hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates while being showered with cheers from the fans watching. McNeill still keeps Roberts around when he can. Last season, while McNeill addressed reporters after a home win against Connecticut, Roberts sat in a chair next to the podium. As for what can be expected this time around, McNeill didn’t unveil any plans of doing anything extracurricular on Saturday afternoon. “You don’t plan things like that,” McNeill said. “That’s why it was special. It wasn’t planned, it just happened.” The scrimmage is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. and will last about 60 plays, according to McNeill. ECU’s first-team offense is expected to line up against the second-team defense, while the first-teamers on defense will be pitted against the second-team offense. Both third-teams will compete against each other.
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