For the past two seasons whenever East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley needed to dial up a running play, he called on Vintavious Cooper.
The shifty two-time 1,000-yard rusher was the perfect fit for the Pirates Air Raid offense, forcing opposing defenses to respect the run just enough to give quarterback Shane Carden and his wideouts a little more breathing room.
Cooper’s graduation means Riley must now scroll a little longer through his phone book.
“We got six guys that are good enough to play,” Riley said, referring a group led by Breon Allen. “We have some different skill sets in there. The biggest challenge in camp so far has been trying to decide how we rep these guys because you want to get a good look at them, but you also don’t want to have six average guys because we want to start giving (the reps) to the guys that are going to play.
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“We’re going to have some tough decisions there. It’s a good problem to have.”
ECU’s diversified backs begins with Allen, a senior JUCO transfer from Snow College in Utah who led the NJCAA in rushing with 1,632 yards in 2012. Allen was the Pirates second-leading rusher last season as the 5-8, 190-pounder gained 5 yards per attempt for 321 yards.
Junior Chris Hairston (6-0, 197 pounds) showed promise in 2013 when he took over for an injured Cooper early on against Middle Tennessee State and ran for 94 yards on 18 carries. Hairston gained 92 yards in his 12 other appearances.
Versatile 5-10, 201-pound junior Cory Hunter has drawn praise from coaches over the years, but suffered a knee injury in the spring of 2013 and only played in three games last season.
Three freshmen are pushing the upperclassmen already. Marquez Grayson is a 6-1, 200-pound redshirt freshman. Anthony Scott, whose 5-9, 180-pound frame compares to Allen, is a true freshman who could play. Redshirt freshman Chris Love, 5-10, 178 pounds, broke off a 71-yard TD run during the Pirates’ Purple and Gold game.
Allen ended the spring atop the depth chart, followed by Hairston and Grayson, but Riley said all cards are on the table.
“After spring Allen and Hairston were probably 1A and 1B. They were the best two after spring and that’s where we started here, but it’s moved around a little bit. Anthony Scott has been a nice surprise,” Riley said. “We have a great mix. We have two guys that have played a lot of ball in Hairston and Allen. They’ve played in meaningful games and have carried the ball. Proven guys I guess you could say in a sense and they have both gotten a lot better this year.
“Then you got guys that are right below them, a little bit younger, in Cory Hunter and Marquez Grayson that are big, physical guys that have some big play ability. Cory was our No. 2 back going into the season last year before he got hurt. … Then you got two young guys that can really roll with Anthony Scott and Chris Love that have major big play ability and are both tough kids.
“… We’re just trying to sift through those guys. All of them have had a lot of good plays and we’re trying to see who’s the most consistent and try to get that thing narrowed down to three or four here in the next couple of weeks.”
Those backs will get a chance to create some separation Saturday when East Carolina holds the first of its two fall scrimmages.