East Carolina's offensive unit produced seven plays of 20 or more yards, while the defense netted four turnovers and seven tackles for lost yardage to highlight the Pirates' first spring scrimmage at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Saturday morning.
The controlled contest, which included game officials and was played in near-perfect conditions with temperatures in the low-60s, consisted of 18 possessions involving mostly the top three levels of ECU's depth chart.
"I thought there were some really positive plays, some explosive plays on both sides of the ball," head coach Ruffin McNeil said. "I thought the defense did a great job of taking the ball away today. I like the fact that the defense got the ball, and if we keep that trend going for next year, that's a very good benefit for us.
"I thought we did pretty well on first down defense and offense. One of the other goals we had today was third down defense and third down offense and I thought we had some positive plays on both of those. In all, I was pleased with the way things went today."
Four quarterbacks - primarily junior Shane Carden, sophomore Cody Keith and true freshman Kurt Benkert, along with redshirt freshman Ethan Long - took turns guiding ECU's offensive unit during the near-100-play contest and combined on a 44-of-64, 493-yard passing effort that also produced four touchdowns.
Thirty-seven of the 44 pass completions were for less than 20 yards, including two of the four scoring tosses, which enabled the offense overcome an personnel-challenged rushing attack that was held to only 2.3 yards per carry. Walk-on Cory Hunter, who turned in the longest run of the day with a 13-yarder midway through the game, led all ground gainers with 40 yards on 10 attempts.
Carden topped all passers with a 20-of-26, 217-yard performance that included a pair of five-yard touchdown tosses to sophomore outside receiver Jabril Soloman and junior inside receiver Danny Webster, and a 23-yarder to junior inside receiver Justin Hardy. Keith, who completed 15-of-20 passes for 158 yards, also recorded a TD throw - connecting with junior outside receiver John Worthy on a 28-yarder on his fourth possession.
The Pirate defense picked off two passes and recovered two fumbles to halt drives, and limited the offense to just an 7-of-21 success rate on third down. Senior strong safety Chip Thompson and redshirt freshman walk-on Nate Mays each recorded pass thefts, while senior inside linebacker Ty Holmes and true freshman position mate Tristan Mumford were credited with fumble recoveries.
"I thought both sides did a great job," McNeill added. "I'm the head coach, so I pull for both sides, I want both sides to do well. There were some back and forth exchanges and challenges, which I like. I thought offense made some plays and defense came back and made some plays. For me, I want the defense to get turnovers, but then that means the offense isn't taking care of the ball and that's when it gets tough."
In addition to Hardy and Worthy's gainers, sophomore transfer Bryce Williams and Webster each were on the other end of big pass plays. Williams hauled in 30 and 35-yarders, while Webster was on the receiving end of a 33-yard Carden throw - one of his game-high seven catches for 89 yards. Williams topped all pass-catchers in yardage with 93 on five grabs.
Sophomore inside linebacker Zeek Bigger turned in a notable effort, topping all tacklers with 11 and adding a pair of stops of lost yardage, a sack and a batted pass. Holmes contributed seven hits and senior Michael Dobson, experiencing action in the secondary for the first time after making the move from running back prior to spring drills, was credited with six tackles.
The contest featured seven ball carriers and 13 pass-catchers who averaged a combined 6.1 yards per play. East Carolina was whistled for seven penalties, just two on the defensive side of the ball.
"One of the things I addressed the team about was being a smart football team," McNeill said. "We had too many penalties. We got about 100 yards and that's too many. We want to go two max to zero on our penalties.
"However, I was excited about the day. I got chills just looking out into the Boneyard and envisioning our students and this whole stadium packed. The state of mind today gave me a chilling experience and I was excited about it and I was glad to get back in here today."
The Pirates open their third week of spring work Monday and will follow with practices Wednesday and Friday before conducting their second scrimmage next Saturday.
NOTES: McNeill announced that sophomore RB Chris Hairston will miss the remainder of the spring workout period after suffering a left shoulder injury during Wednesday's practice.
SPRING NO. 1 SCRIMMAGE STATS
RUSHING: Cory Hunter (10-40), Quataye Smyre (5-25), Zico Pasut (3-8), John Barnes-Smith (1-2), Marcus Simmons (2-0), Cody Keith (1-<-8>), Kurt Benkert (2-<-11>). Totals –– 24-56 (2.3 ypr), 0 TD.
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