Walk-ons prove invaluable to ECU defense

ECU walk-ons have contributed in a variety of ways, most notably on the offensive side of the ball. However, Pirate defenders have flown under the radar, working their way up from walk-ons to team contributors.

East Carolina’s well-documented walk-on program has helped develop some of the Pirates’ most effective players in recent years.

Justin Hardy, now with the Atlanta Falcons, is the most well known of the crop but since Ruffin McNeill’s arrival to Greenville in 2010, ECU’s walk-on program has been a cornerstone in player development. In fact, some of the Pirates’ most well known defensive starters have risen from a non-scholarship level to not only becoming starters on the team but to being compensated by the university as well.

To name a few notables in recent and present memory, Brandon Williams, Joe Allely, Terrell Richardson, Josh Hawkins, Fred Presley and Bobby Fulp represent names that even the common ECU fan might recognize that have risen from walk-on status.

So how then have these effective Division I football players fallen through the cracks so often, and why has Greenville become a refuge of sorts for the outcasts?

“Recruiting is not an exact science,” defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “You can’t measure a kids heart.”

It’s become almost a trend of sorts for the Pirates to bring in less-than-acclaimed players since McNeill took over the program but the coach, who vehemently calls his players his sons, has always valued character over talent and has sought to teach slowly but surely.

He won’t “microwave things” as he says and the magnum opus of his stay at his Alma mater was the record-breaking duo of Shane Carden and Hardy — both of whom represent the low-caliber, high-reward system that McNeill and his staff utilize.

Now, though, and perhaps still to the dismay of Pirate fans, ECU is forced to move on and archive the duo. The spotlight hasn’t stopped there and this season the inevitability of the perceived no-name becoming a key cog in the finely-tuned Pirate machine seems more likely than not.

“They understand that to play for this staff and for coach McNeill is a privilege,” Smith said. “A privilege is earned and there’s no entitlement, you have to earn it every day. East Carolina kids have always worked hard.”

The redshirt sophomore Allely is logically next in the long line of walk-ons turned starters. He received his scholarship last spring and admitted it brought tears to his eyes. He’s projected as the top ‘will’ linebacker coming out of spring but it wasn’t long ago that the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker had to make one of the toughest decisions of his life and turn down a partial scholarship at a much smaller school just for the chance to be a blip on the radar at ECU.

“I didn’t know a whole lot (about the school),” he said. “But I felt like if showed up and did the best that I could then I’d have a shot just like everyone else. I feel like here they give everyone a fair shot.”

Hawkins knows a whole lot about getting a fair shot, too. Though Smith didn’t recruit him, the now-Preseason First Team All-AAC cornerback has enjoyed a rapid rise from scout-team walk-on. He’s also been a bit of a thorn in the side of Smith but the player coach relationship seems more of a father-son dynamic than a beleaguered coach and his occasionally mistake-prone star.

Smith recalled Hawkins as a high school kid. “Skinny,” he called him but even as a star running back, he didn’t project to the position in college. Instead, he took a preferred walk-on spot and has since used his speed and athleticism to wreck havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

“I have a lot of respect for walk-on athletes,” Hawkins said. “I took a chance and God blessed me to be at the right school. Rick Smith saw that I was a great player and athlete and he saw my work ethic and potential and gave me a shot and I’m really blessed to have Rick Smith in my life, honestly.”

It’s hard to imagine many players ever getting the acclaim that Carden and Hardy deservedly get, but for the Pirates, undervalued high school players making a large impact on the playing field has become a trend that they hope won’t soon be reversed.

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