College Sports in the Carolinas
Watch for Al Myatt's
profile of new ECU Chancellor Steven Ballard in this summer's
from the East
Monday, August 2, 2004
By Al Myatt
Purple's fortunes rest with
green front line
At this point in 1997, East Carolina was preparing for its first season in
Conference USA. The Pirates were coming off an 8-3 season in which they
defeated South Carolina, Miami (Fla.) and N.C. State but were bypassed in
the bowl selection process.
ECU running back Scott Harley was returning from a sophomore season in which
he ran for a school record 1,745 yards.
The Pirates also had a first-year offensive line coach named Chuck Kelly.
In 1997, current ECU coach John Thompson was defensive coordinator and
assistant head coach at Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles' unit under
Thompson's direction was eighth in the nation in rushing defense the
previous season. Current Pirates offensive coordinator Noah Brindise was
preparing for his senior season as a quarterback for the Florida Gators. New
ECU offensive line coach Robert McFarland was coaching the offensive linemen
at Stephen F. Austin in 1997.
Although much of ECU's personnel has changed its home base over the last
seven seasons, there are similarities in the challenge facing McFarland to
the job Kelly inherited in 1997.
When Kelly arrived, the cupboard was pretty bare in terms of experienced
personnel up front. McFarland returns only senior Charlie Dempsey among
offensive linemen who started last year.
"Coming in here, of course, I was informed that we had lost four starters,"
McFarland said. "Anytime you lose that much experience in a football
program, it's huge. We had a huge undertaking in spring football to find
five offensive linemen who could jell."
In 1997, Harley struggled mightily to find his sophomore form. Behind a
youthful and ineffectual blocking corps, Harley managed just 457 rushing
yards as a junior. After producing a school record individual total in 1996,
ECU managed only 742 yards on the ground in 1997. The previous team rushing
season low, dating back to 1959, was 1,429 yards in 1991.
The Pirates had a 1-5 start in '97 that included a 56-0 loss at Syracuse but
resourceful former coach Steve Logan eventually adjusted to the offensive
front's lack of run-blocking talent. ECU quarterback Dan Gonzalez started
throwing — a lot. By the time ECU hosted Cincinnati on a wet Thursday night
in November, the Pirates had recovered to win three in a row. Gonzalez then
threw 62 times in a 14-7 win over the Bearcats.
McFarland is optimistic that ECU's offense won't have to become so one
dimensional in 2004.
"One of the positives is Coach Brindise's new offense," McFarland said.
"Everybody started from scratch. When you have something new you have to
explain everything. It wasn't as if the young guys were learning something
that everybody else already knew. We went through everything in detail and
that helped the coaches, too."
Positions are still up for grabs going into preseason practice, according to
McFarland, who Thompson hired from the former staff at Central Florida.
"Coming out of spring we had six or seven guys competing for spots and we'll
get more help from recruiting," McFarland said.
Finding the best player for the center position will be McFarland's starting
point when practice gets started on Aug. 10.
"The center has to be able to take grasp of what we're doing and run the
offense up front," McFarland said. "The center has to do his job and tell
the other four guys what to do."
McFarland will look at three players as possibilities at center — junior
Hunter Wood, senior Hagen Mason and Dempsey, who started 12 games at left
guard last season.
Wood came out of spring ball listed as the starter on the depth chart
although Mason's class schedule caused him to miss a significant portion of
the offseason workouts.
"Mason was locked into some classes he couldn't take at other times and that
hurt him," McFarland said. "Dempsey did a great job of learning another
offense and his previous playing time helped solidify him in spring ball."
McFarland intends to find spots for his best offensive linemen.
"We're not going to stack positions," he said. "Our five best are definitely
going to be on the field for us."
Junior Gary Freeman (6-1, 322), who started two games last season at right
guard, looked like a "top five" on the OL based on his spring performance.
Junior Trey Magee (6-4, 294) will provide depth at guard if he doesn't
"When you throw the ball, tackles are a huge concern in pass protection,"
McFarland said. "You start at center with a guy who can run your blocking
schemes. Tackles are the second consideration. Once you have two
established, one could end up moving inside to challenge for a guard
Eric Graham, a 6-foot-6, 307-pound sophomore, won approval from McFarland in
"He was probably our most productive guy in terms of tackles in the spring,"
McFarland said. "He can run block. He can protect. He's got good feet and he
showed he can play the left or right side."
Joel Renaud (6-7, 325) started as a freshman on a national champion junior
college team at Reedley (Cal.) College.
"I recruited him for three years at Central Florida," McFarland said. "He
has everything you want in terms of physical tools. He needs to learn the
offense and improve his conditioning because he didn't play last year. The
good thing is that he has three years here."
Another junior college transfer, Chris Sellars from New Mexico Military
Institute, will get a shot at tackle, as will junior James Myrick (6-4,
271), a converted tight end.
ECU's skill personnel may take some pressure off a developing offensive line
and prevent a repeat of the calamity of the 1997 ground attack. Backs Marvin
Townes and Art Brown, who have each gone for over 1,000 yards rushing in a
season at ECU, help make the job of the offensive linemen easier.
"When you have backs who can make things happen, defenses don't play as
aggressively," McFarland said. "It slows them down. Great backs help us."
James Pinkney came out of spring practice as the starter at quarterback. His
athleticism should help prevent sacks.
"One aspect of our passing game is that, because it emphasizes quick throws,
you don't have to hold blocks," McFarland said. "We'd prefer for our
quarterback not to run, but a quarterback with quick feet can get us out of
trouble at times."
Understanding Brindise's new system is essential for McFarland's troops in
"One thing we sell our guys on is understanding the offense," McFarland
said. "Even if we're physically overmatched, we have to at least make them
go through us first. We can't turn people free, miss assignments or take
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