GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Even if Lincoln Riley couldn’t identify with the speed or the hands of the receiver on the screen in front of him, he could empathize with the kid’s situation. In 2002, after a standout career as the quarterback of the Muleshoe (Texas) Mules, Riley had a few options. He could take a scholarship to West Texas A&M or Abilene Christian, or he could walk on at Texas Tech. Riley chose the non-scholarship path, and eight years later, he hoped the player jumping off his computer would take the same option.
Riley had just arrived as East Carolina’s offensive coordinator in 2010, and he needed bodies at receiver. He had brought Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense to Greenville only a month after calling Leach’s offense for the first time. Leach had been fired the week of the Alamo Bowl following the 2009 season, and interim coach Ruffin McNeill, the Red Raiders’ defensive coordinator, had tapped Riley, then 26, to call the plays against Michigan State. With Riley at the controls, Texas Tech rolled up 579 yards in a 41-31 win. A month later, McNeill had returned to his alma mater as head coach, and he had hired Riley to bring the Air Raid to East Carolina.
Shortly after they arrived, the new East Carolina coaches received a video clip from a coach at West Craven High in tiny Vanceboro, N.C. The coach believed his receiver, Justin Hardy, had been underrecruited. “We watched the film,” Riley said. “We said this guy must be going to [North] Carolina or NC State. He was going to Fayetteville State.” Hardy isn’t sure why the larger schools shied away. Maybe it was his move from receiver to quarterback before his senior season. “It was either Fayetteville State,” he said, “or don’t go to school.” Until the new staff arrived at East Carolina.
Hardy accepted a preferred walk-on spot and headed to Greenville. The magic Riley saw on the high school film translated at the college level, and Hardy -- who went on to earn a scholarship -- now leads a brigade of walk-on and former walk-on pass-catchers in an offense that averaged 40.2 points as the Pirates won 10 games in 2013.
East Carolina will travel south to Columbia, S.C., Saturday to face South Carolina, which got shredded last week by a Texas A&M offense running a spread, up-tempo scheme similar to the one Riley runs at East Carolina. Even before losing to the Aggies, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier was worried about this game, which is sandwiched between Texas A&M and Georgia and against a team that beat North Carolina by 24 in Chapel Hill last year. “Playing East Carolina is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams,” Spurrier told reporters last month. “And a lot of fans around here would rather see a team that’s close by.”
They probably don’t want to see the Pirates beat the Gamecocks, though. But that is the danger of bringing in an offense that had 11 players gain at least 100 receiving yards last season. Hardy led the way with 114 catches for 1,284 yards. Tight end Bryce Williams and receivers Cam Worth and DaQuan Barnes, who all also came to East Carolina as walk-ons, joined Hardy on that list. “We don’t have nearly enough receivers on scholarship right now,” Riley said. “But we’ve gotten so many good ones through the walk-on program. … This part of the country has some raw athleticism, but it doesn’t get recruited really hard.”
McNeill learned to appreciate a good walk-on program while working for Jerry Moore at Appalachian State from 1993-96. Moore learned from the master, former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. “There are a lot of good kids out there that may be untapped,” McNeill said. And quite a few catch the ball for the Pirates.
“It’s awesome to know that they’re not labeling anybody,” Williams said. “If you’re a player, you’re going to play.” The guy throwing to them was never a walk-on, but he was almost as lightly recruited.
One of Riley and McNeill’s first moves after arriving in Greenville in 2010 was to talk a Lone Star State quarterback into coming east. Former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons called the new East Carolina coaches to alert them to the gridiron exploits of the son of Symons’ wife’s boss. Shane Carden, from Houston Episcopal High, had committed to FCS power Sam Houston State. With only a few weeks to go before National Signing Day, Riley and McNeill began trying to talk Carden into signing at a higher level. Carden, who had watched a lot of Red Raiders games growing up, was intrigued by the young coordinator running Leach’s offense, so he signed.
For Riley and Pirates offensive line coach Brandon Jones, selling -- and coaching -- the offense was easy. They had played in it at Texas Tech. “This is one of things I sell in recruiting. You’ve got a lot of older coaches in the game. Hell, they haven’t played football in how many years? I’m probably eight or nine years removed. The same protections I used in college are the ones I use now.”
But while Jones was a starting center for the Red Raiders, Riley made the transition early from walk-on quarterback to student coach. This allowed Riley to become a graduate assistant as soon as he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2006. Riley was a graduate assistant that season, but after Sonny Dykes left the staff to become the offensive coordinator at Arizona, Leach promoted Riley to receivers coach. He was 23.
“I realize that if it would have been a more mainstream coach,” Riley said, “he probably wouldn’t have had the guts to hire me.” One special player eased Riley’s transition to full-time assistant. “I had [Michael] Crabtree and all those guys. I thought I was the smartest receivers coach in the country,” Riley joked. “I thought, ‘This is easy. This isn’t hard. My guy is catching like three touchdowns a game.’”
Riley was practically a grizzled veteran by the time Leach got fired and McNeill asked him to call plays in the Alamo Bowl. Riley described the week leading up to the game as “a circus,” but he said the nerves melted away once the game began. “I had always felt like I could call plays. That had never scared me,” he said. “But after we did it in that situation -- with all that stacked up against us -- I figured if I could do it then that I could do it again in a more normal situation.”
That situation came at East Carolina, where Riley admits the Pirates used “smoke and mirrors” to produce respectable offenses his first two years. The Pirates began to assume their current identity when Carden won the starting quarterback job as a redshirt sophomore in 2012. The Pirates’ scoring output jumped more than five points a game to 31.5. Hardy, who had led the Pirates as a redshirt freshman with 658 receiving yards, raised his total to 1,105 yards. The Pirates took another step in 2013, raising their tempo from 72.8 plays a game in 2012 to 79.1 plays a game.
Now, with the lightly recruited Carden throwing to Hardy and his band of walk-ons, the Pirates hope to accelerate more. “Three years ago, we thought we were going fast,” Riley said. “Two years ago, we thought we were going fast. We’ve found some stuff this year where we can go even faster.”
They hope they can go fast enough this week to run past another team that ignored some of the best Pirates out of high school. “A lot of guys get overlooked,” Hardy said. “That’s the beauty of it. We’re the team that got what everybody didn’t want. So we go against teams that didn’t want us and beat them.”