GREENVILLE, N.C. - Fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill and the East Carolina Pirates officially opened the program's American Athletic Conference era with their initial workout of the 2014 spring practice period Friday afternoon at Hight Field inside the Cliff Moore Practice Complex.
McNeill, who has led ECU to three bowl appearances in his four-year tenure and guided the Pirates to their second-highest single-season win total in school history with a 10-3 record last fall, led his roster through a two-hour workout in shorts and helmets under clear skies and moderate temperatures.
"I'm really excited to find out what this team's personality is," McNeill said. "As is usually the case, we'll have some new guys coming in during the summer, but the core of our team is here. I've always said you contend and win championships in the off-season and this is the next step in that process."
The session, the first of 14 scheduled practices, will culminate with the playing of the Purple-Gold Spring Game on April 12 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Pirates return six starters on offense, four on the defensive side of the ball and welcome back a total of 50 lettermen off a team that also recorded a 6-2 league mark in its last year of competition in Conference USA. ECU closed the regular season by winning six of their last seven contests, including a 37-20 triumph over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl that capped the program’s seventh bowl appearance in the last eight years.
In addition, East Carolina stood among the nation's top 15 in 11 different statistical categories - including fourth down conversion percentage (5th), third down conversion percentage (7th), kickoff return average (7th), scoring offense (8th), most first downs (10th), passing offense (11th), fewest fumbles lost (12th), fewest turnovers lost (13th), most passes intercepted (13th), rushing defense (13th) and most sacks (13th).
Headlining the list of spring returnees are 11 seniors who were members of the season-ending offensive and defensive positional depth chart in 2013, including quarterback Shane Carden, receivers Justin Hardy and Cam Worthy, offensive lineman Taylor Hudson, running back Breon Allen, defensive linemen Chrishon Rose and Terry Williams, linebackers Maurice Falls and Brandon Williams, cornerback Detric Allen and free safety Lamar Ivey.
In all, East Carolina's offensive unit will welcome back 20 lettermen, 14 of which experienced playing time on the offensive line (six) and receiver (eight) positions. In addition to Hudson (C), Tre Robertson is back after starting the final six contests at the right tackle slot as a sophomore. Hardy, a two-time First-Team All-Conference USA selection, should again key a pass-catching corps after becoming the first Pirate receiver to post consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns after producing 1,105 (88 catches) and school-record 1,284-yard (114) efforts as a sophomore and junior, respectively,
Carden, who established a combined nine single-game and single-season school standards a year ago, returns as one of the most prolific passers at the FBS level. As a junior, he ranked second among all national signal-callers in completion percentage (70.5), fifth in completions per game (29.8) and points responsible for per game (20.5), sixth in points responsible for (266), seventh in passing yards (4,139), eighth in passing yards per game (318.4), ninth in touchdown passes (33), 14th in total offense per game (326.3) and 24th in pass efficiency rating (150.01). Statistically, he stands as the top QB in the American Conference to open 2014 after completing 387-of-549 throws for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.
In addition to the four starters, defensive coordinator Rick Smith welcomes back 25 lettermen to a unit that ranked among the country's top 50 in total defense (36th), turnovers gained (38th), pass efficiency defense (43rd) and scoring defense (49th).
However, the Pirates will have to find replacements for six of the squad's top 10 tacklers from a year ago. Junior inside linebacker Zeek Bigger (77 tackles), Brandon Williams (69), junior outside linebacker Montese Overton (50) and end Terrell Stanley (46) all made a combined 242 stops a year ago.
Of the seven starting vacancies on ECU's defense heading into the spring, three are at linebacker and three are in the secondary - including both safety positions after the departure of long-time pass defender Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson. Magazu and outside linebacker Derrell Johnson co-led the unit with 80 tackles, while the latter posted team-bests in sacks (8.0) and hits for lost yardage (14.0).
ECU also opened the spring campaign minus kickoff returner Lance Ray and punter Trent Tignor, but return nearly everyone else on the program's special teams squad. Hardy, who has served as the Pirates' top punt return specialist for the last two years, will join senior placekicker Warren Harvey, junior short snapper C.J. Struyk and senior deep snapper Charlie Coggins as regulars.
"Spring ball is for fundamental development," McNeill said. "That's where you get the chance to develop the core of your team's toolbox. And when we talk about development, it's about building competitive depth."
East Carolina will return to the practice complex Saturday morning as part of a Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday workout schedule during the next three-plus weeks. After planning on spending its first three practice sessions in shorts, McNeill indicated ECU would conduct its first pad workout Wednesday to begin preparation efforts for scrimmages March 29 and April 5 prior to the playing of the annual spring game.
NOTES: McNeill announced during his press conference Thursday that a total of 12 players will miss portions or the entire spring workout period because of injuries and subsequent rehabilitation efforts ... OLB Jeton Beavers (lower back), OLB Jake Geary (left leg), IR Jacen Murphy (right knee), IR Jimmy Williams' (left foot) action will be limited, while DB Edward Fulp (right shoulder), OT Ike Harris (right shoulder), RB Cory Hunter (right knee), QB Cody Keith (right elbow), OL Christian Matau (left knee), NT Mike Myers (left pectoral), DE Terrell Stanley (upper body), C/SSN C.J. Struyk (right shoulder) are expected to sit out the entire spring.