By Nathan Summers
Monday, March 25, 2013
As he was making his way to Minges Coliseum for an East Carolina men’s basketball game last week, a parking guard stopped ECU head football coach Ruffin McNeill to ask him a question.
“The guard said, ‘Did you all have spring practice today?’” McNeill recalled. “I said, ‘No, we don’t start until Monday, sir.’ He said, ‘Well, I saw the team out there practicing.’”
It wasn’t a mirage. It was a disciplined, experienced team trying to make sure it was ready to make the most of every minute of spring football which, as McNeill said, begins today.
McNeill’s team is only a few months removed from its season-ending loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl, and is already set to dive headlong into the 2013 season with today’s 3:30 p.m. opening practice.
“They’re doing the little things,” McNeill said late last week of his players’ final days before spring drills. “On Saturdays, you’ll see (quarterback) Shane (Carden) and a group of guys — receivers, running backs and offensive line — on their own, going through plays.
“Those are the intangibles that you can’t put a price on.”
The Pirates are set to return the second-most starters in the nation, an obvious luxury, and they’ll undoubtedly be inspired to avenge last season’s postseason disappointment.
McNeill is mindful, however, that his team can’t win any games this spring.
“I want those expectations and goals and visions,” he said. “There are a lot of practices left before we play a game, a lot of conditioning left before we play a game, but the process is the key thing with this team. I think they’ve got a good grasp on it.”
As always, some players have embraced the offseason as a time to make their greatest strides.
McNeill said one such player is senior receiver Justin Jones, whom McNeill said was a shining star with ECU strength coach Jeff Connors the past couple of months.
“When coach Connors offers (praise), that’s a high compliment,” McNeill said, noting that Jones is up to 277 pounds, is benching 400-plus pounds, turned in a 37-inch vertical leap and was clocked around 4.78 in the 40-yard dash. “There are a lot guys in that same category, too.”
Some of those other guys who made remarkable gains include defensive ends Jonathon White and Lee Pegues, defensive back Domonique Lennon, linebacker Maurice Falls, offensive linemen C.J. Struyk and Adhem Elsawi and wide receivers Reese Wiggins and walk-on John Worthy, who turned in the team’s third-highest all-time vertical leap.
The most significant piece missing from the ECU offense this spring will be senior 1,000-yard rusher Vintavious Cooper, who is suspended indefinitely after a recent on-campus marijuana citation. McNeill confirmed that Cooper will sit out all spring football activities.
Further opening the door in the ECU backfield is the departure of Hunter Furr, who will remain a member of the ECU track team, as will former Pirate rusher, receiver and defensive back Torrance Hunt. Also, senior Michael Dobson has switched to defensive back after spending his entire career as a tailback.
The Pirates will also be without a handful of mainstay defensive starters for all or part of spring due to injuries and offseason surgeries. Senior safety Damon Magazu (back) and senior defensive ends Justin Dixon (knee) and Matt Milner (hip) are all out for the entire spring. Junior inside linebacker Jeremy Grove (shoulder) could be back by late spring, while nose tackle Terrell Stanley (knee) could be back by the second week of drills.
Out on the offensive side are a couple of former walk-ons in inside receiver Chris Cacciola (shoulder) and running back Jamal Tillman (knee).
Contact Nathan Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-329-9595
via The Daily Reflector.