GREENVILLE — One of the cornerstones of East Carolina’s 10-3 football season was a veteran offensive line that spent its first couple of seasons taking lumps before spending the last couple administering them.
With seniors anchoring both guard positions and the right tackle spot, the Pirates paved a second straight 1,000-yard rushing season for Vintavious Cooper while also helping to foster the stardom of 4,000-yard passer Shane Carden and two-time 1,000-yard receiver Justin Hardy.
But as the dynamic duo of Carden and Hardy begins work on its final season, it will do so without 2013 senior mainstays Jordan Davis, Will Simmons and Adhem Elsawi at the aforementioned line spots.
As rising junior starters Ike Harris at left tackle, C.J. Struyk at center and backup starter Tre Robertson at right tackle become the seasoned veterans — and a big crop of inexperienced reserves tries to identify more permanent roles — a slew of new recruits is set to flood the back end of the depth chart.
ECU expects at least five new linemen to become Pirates on National Signing Day on Feb. 5, and would still like to add a junior college player to provide some immediate help. Long-term replacements are set to arrive in 6-foot-4, 295-pound Kyle Erickson (Fayetteville/Jack Britt), 6-5, 285-pound Erik Lenzen (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./Cardinal Gibbons), 6-5, 260-pound Messiah Rice (Orangeburg, S.C./Wilkinson), 6-6, 266-pound Garrett McGhin (Tallahassee, Fla./FSU School) and 6-7, 290-pound Desmond Barmore (Columbus, Ga./Hardaway).
“I scanned through all my offers my senior year, and I found that ECU was my best bet,” said Lenzen, who also fielded offers from Florida International, Bowling Green, Massachusetts, Ohio, Toledo, South Alabama and Western Kentucky before he took up ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley on his offer, the first Lenzen said he received in a long recruiting process. “I like the small-town football feel, and that East Carolina is all about football and packing the stadium for games.”
Lenzen called the ECU weight room outstanding, and said he knows he’ll be spending a lot of his life there after signing day. According to Lenzen, the word from Riley and offensive line coach Brandon Jones was simple: Come to ECU in shape and ready to run.
“I need to get stronger and faster, so I’ve been hitting the weight room every day,” said Lenzen, who is most comfortable at right tackle but said he’s open to moving inside to guard if asked.
Erickson, meanwhile, is already cut from the ECU mold in that his head coach at Jack Britt was former Pirate star and Baltimore Ravens tackle Brian Rimpf. Although he’s got a long way to go, Erickson hopes to have a similar career.
“I loved ECU, loved everything about it and loved the atmosphere,” said Erickson, who noted that Duke and Virginia Tech also showed strong interest in him, though he said he committed to the Pirates at their annual spring game last April. “It was a team I really wanted to be a part of. I didn’t need to wait to hear any other offers.
“I want to make coach Rimpf proud, so there’s some pressure there. He was pretty happy when he heard (about Erickson’s decision) but he didn’t want me to rush into anything.”
Like Lenzen, Erickson was a dominant high school tackle who said he will likely transition inside to guard.
In between the bona fide starters and the fresh faces is a wealth of returning potential: seniors Drew Gentry, Taylor Hudson, Keifer Neal and Jonathan Powers; juniors Will Foxx, Stewart Hinson, Chaz Lowery and Marquise Wallace; sophomores J.T. Boyd, Ryan Revia and Larry Williams; and redshirt freshmen Christian Matau and Brandon Smith.
Also set for takeoff with the Pirates this year is 6-4, 290-pound Havelock product Malcom Ashley, who signed last February but did not initially qualify academically. He is in school now and ready to begin spring drills with the team on March 21.
Even with those big numbers, the search for the short term continues.
Former N.C. State left tackle signee Quincy McKinney is also in the Pirates’ sights. The 6-3, 309-pounder, also a Columbus, Ga., native, exited the Wolfpack program last May. He spent the ’13 season at JUCO stronghold Hutchinson in Kansas, and plans to visit the Pirates Saturday.
Visiting ECU on Jan. 24 is another potential JUCO gem in Kelby Johnson, a 6-8, 310-pound tackle prototype who spent last season in Brooklyn, N.Y., at ASA College after previously signing at Virginia.