Fourth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill and the East Carolina Pirates officially opened the 2013 spring practice period with their initial workout Monday afternoon at Hight Field inside the Cliff Moore Practice Complex.
McNeill, who has led ECU to a pair of bowl appearances in his three-year tenure and helped the Pirates match their second-highest single-season win total since 1992 with an 8-5 record last fall, led his 116-member roster through a two-hour workout in shorts and helmets under cloudy skies and cool temperatures.
"It’s an exciting day for us as a staff to get a chance to get on the field and be around the players again," McNeill said. "This is my 29th college spring and it’s never not been an exciting time to get back to coaching to see how they have progressed from back in December to right now."
Of the 116 rostered players, 19 have joined the East Carolina program this spring as walk-on hopefuls.
The session, the first of 15 scheduled practices, will culminate with the playing of the Purple-Gold Spring Game April 20 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Pirates will return eight starters on offense, eight on the defensive side of the ball and welcome back a total of 50 lettermen off a team that also recorded a 7-1 Conference USA East Division co-championship mark. In addition, ECU closed the regular season by winning five of its last six games and stood among the nation's Top 30 in five different statistical categories - including a No. 3 rank in redzone efficiency, a No. 4 rating in fourth down conversion percentage and a No. 10 finish in fewest penalties.
Headlining the list of spring returnees are 15 seniors who were members of the season-ending positional depth chart in 2012, including receivers Justin Jones and Reese Wiggins, offensive linemen Jordan Davis, Adhem Elsawi and Will Simmons, running backs Vintavious Cooper and Zico Pasut, defensive linemen Matt Milner and Lee Pegues, linebackers Ty Holmes, Kyle Tudor and Gabriel Woullard, cornerback Adonis Armstrong and safeties Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson.
"We began evaluating the Monday of signing day week and now we get a chance to get on the field and work on those schematically," McNeill added. We'll never neglect the fundamental aspect around here, but in the spring you really have the opportunity to put the football part with the off-season and training part. I expect to get a lot accomplished in our 15 days."
In all, East Carolina's offensive unit will welcome back 19 lettermen, 15 of which experienced playing time on the offensive line (seven) and receiver (eight) positions. In addition to Davis (LG), Elsawi (RT), and Simmons (RG), center Taylor Hudson is back after starting the majority of contests as a sophomore. Junior Justin Hardy, a First-Team All-Conference USA selection in 2012, will key a pass-catching corps after standing among the Top 25 nationally with 88 receptions for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Unlike a year ago, the Pirates will enter the spring with a returning starter at quarterback as junior Shane Carden hopes to build on a 273-of-414, 3,116-yard, 23-TD performance last fall. Carden, who initially came up short for the top job after a heated nine-month battle with Rio Johnson last spring and summer, made his first start in ECU's third game and responded with the Pirates' third-highest single-season passing total in school history.
In all, he directly accounted for 31 of East Carolina's 45 offensive TDs as the top signal-caller and led drives that produced all 15 field goals. Carden closed the regular season by establishing a Pirate single-game record with 439 passing yards vs. Marshall and logged the program’s third-highest completion percentage (80.9) with career-bests in completions (38) and attempts (47) against the Herd.
In addition to the eight starters, which includes ECU's top seven tacklers from a year ago, newly-appointed defensive coordinator Rick Smith will inherit 26 returning letterman to a unit that will shift slightly from a 3-4 and feature more of a multiple look in 2013.
Junior inside linebacker Jeremy Grove (83 tackles), Magazu (80) and Johnson (62) combined to make 225 stops a year ago to earn All-Conference USA honors. The trio, who also own a total of 85 career starts, also headline a unit that returns 78 percent of its tackles (766 of 977) and over 80 percent of its turnover production (18 of 22; 9/10 interceptions and 9/12 fumble recoveries).
Along with Pegues, another all-league performer last fall, the Pirates' front seven will be bolstered by the return of Tudor (62), Woullard (49) and junior nose tackle Terry Williams (46). Thompson, who booked a team-best three interceptions during his debut season, joins Magazu and Armstrong in a secondary that will be looking to find help at cornerback after the graduation of long-time pass defenders Jacobi Jenkins and Leonard Paulk.
ECU will opened the spring campaign minus kickoff returner Derrick Harris, but return nearly everyone else on the program's special teams squad. Hardy, who served as the Pirates' top punt return specialist in 2012, will join senior punter and holder Trent Tignor, junior placekicker Warren Harvey, sophomore short snapper C.J. Struyk and junior deep snapper Charlie Coggins as regulars.
Harvey was a perfect 50-of-50 on all point-after attempts and converted 13 of this last 14 field goal tries, while Tignor ranked 29th nationally with a 42.8 yards per punt average.
“We have a vision and we know what we want to accomplish, but getting our team, staff, everybody around involved within ear-shot range to understand the process – that is what it will take to get to that vision, "McNeill said.
East Carolina will return to the practice complex Wednesday as part of a Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday workout schedule during the next four weeks. After planning on spending its first two practice sessions in shorts and shells, McNeill indicated ECU would conduct its first pad workout Friday to begin preparation efforts for scrimmages April 6 and April 13 prior to the playing of the annual spring game.
NOTES: McNeill announced during his press conference that a total of seven players will miss portions or the entire spring workout period because of injuries and subsequent rehabilitation efforts ... ILB Jeremy Grove (left shoulder) and NT/DE Terrell Stanley's (left knee) action will be limited, while IWR Chris Cacciola (left shoulder), DE Justin Dixon (right knee), FS Damon Magazu (back), DE Matt Milner (right hip) and RB Jamal Tillman are expected to sit out the entire spring ... McNeill also reiterated that running back Vintavious Cooper will also miss spring practice because of a suspension that was announced on March 8 for an off-the-field matter.