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East Carolina has dealt with lack of depth in the Ruffin McNeill
coaching era but the Pirates have gotten better at handling it.
Riddled by injuries to the defense at the close of the 2010 season, the
Pirates yielded an average of 54.1 points in the last five games.
Ten different players made starts at five offensive line positions as
the injury bug shifted its bite in 2011 and ECU fell short of a bowl
Last season, there were problems keeping running backs healthy but the
Pirates had enough depth to overcome the situation.
This year, the personnel challenge has been at the receiver positions.
Various factors have made Justin Jones, Jabril Solomon, Danny Webster,
Jimmy Williams, Zico Pasut, Quataye Smyre and Davon Grayson unavailable
Instead of struggling with the misfortune of those absences, ECU has
scarcely missed a beat as evidenced by 384 yards and five touchdowns
passing by Shane Carden in
a 58-24 win over Tulsa on
True freshman Isaiah Jones has been among those stepping up. Jones had
eight catches for 104 yards and two scores as ECU improved to 7-2
overall and 5-1 in Conference USA going into a 2 p.m. home game with
Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.
Jones is a Pirate legacy. His dad, Robert, was a linebacker on the 11-1
ECU team in 1991 and went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys. His uncle,
Jeff Blake, quarterbacked that team that topped N.C. State 37-34 in the
Peach Bowl and went on to an extended NFL career. His cousin, Emory
Blake, played at Auburn and is currently on the St. Louis Rams practice
squad. Another cousin, Torre Blake, is a sophomore outside hitter on the
ECU volleyball team.
"He comes from great bloodlines," said Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill. "He
came into summer school and absolutely fit what coach (Jeff) Connors
(assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning) preaches —
before we could even coach him."
In Connors' evaluation, both Grayson and Jones had leadership abilities.
"(Jones) continued into fall camp and fought for playing time," McNeill
said. "When he was given the starting position, he has not relaxed. He
practices just like Justin (Hardy), like he's going to lose his job if
he doesn't go hard every play. That's what I like about Zay."
In nine games, Jones has 39 catches for 382 yards and five touchdowns.
His first scoring reception came in the
season-opening 52-38 win over Old Dominion.
That's not bad for a guy who was lining up for Stephen F. Austin High
School in Austin, TX, a year ago.
"He's a smart football player," McNeill said. "He understands concepts
offensively as well as defensively."
The Pirates coach is anticipating that Jones will transform his 6 feet,
one inch, 170-pound frame with more training under Connors and be even
better suited for the game.
Jones also may develop in other areas. He returned his first kickoff for
28 yards in
a 34-13 win at Florida International
on Nov. 2.
Hardy, who continued to put his name in the ECU record books with his
second 1,000-plus yard receiving season and his 23rd career touchdown
catch on Saturday, has been a positive influence on Jones.
"Justin is Isaiah's big brother," McNeill said. "He takes care of him.
... When they do double Justin, they have to worry about (Jones). Once
they start doubling, a different guy should flourish."
Hardy and Jones room together on the road. Like Hardy, Jones wasn't the
subject of a tug of war from college recruiters. Both genuinely
appreciate the opportunity the Pirates have given them.
"My college decision came down to the people and the tradition," Jones
said. "The environment here — the people and the coaches, they embrace
you. When I came here and met these people I could see this was where I
needed to be."
Jones said Hardy has helped him with the mental transition to the
"When we're in the film room, I'm watching Justin," Jones said. "How did
he catch that ball? How did he adjust that route? How did he make that
Hardy is a great resource for a young player eager to improve.
"When you are able to surround yourself with people like that, that
makes you successful," Jones said. " ... I was a little nervous, as any
freshman would be, but I've had great coaches and I've been surrounded
by great players that have allowed me to progress and do well this
"I didn't start that high on the depth chart but I've worked my way up.
The coaches have given me a fair opportunity to do what I can. ... In
the end, it's all about the team. We've progressed as a team."
Extensive film study helped Jones to his productive day against the
"They're a good team first of all, but the film work helps to pinpoint
their weaknesses, how to find where to sit in their zones and stuff like
that," Jones said.
One player Jones inevitably sees when he goes to study film is Carden,
the junior quarterback.
"This guy is mentally sharp," Jones said. "He knows what to do. He puts
us in position to be successful. He's one of the greatest players I've
ever been around. Shane is always in the film room. Every time I walk by
there, he's in there."
Jones made a motion with his hand like someone operating a remote
control to convey Carden's focus.
"He's always doing what he can to make this team successful," said the
When Jones was asked what number he preferred, he asked for No. 7, which
he wore in high school. It was available.
Robert Jones doesn't get to see his son play in person on a regular
"I've got five other siblings that need him as well," Jones said.
"Whenever he can come up here and watch, I'm happy for that. I know he's
always got his eyes on me, whether it's on a TV or here."
The Pirate receiving corps is like a stockpile of interchangeable parts.
"We've had some unfortunate losses but some guys have stepped up," Jones
Jones has made some significant contributions already and his upside is
He feels the offense will get better, too.
"We still haven't reached our peak yet," Jones said. "I feel like we're
still climbing up that mountain."