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BYH, some see the glass as half empty. I say just get a smaller glass and quit complaining....

ECU PRESEASON: 5 players who have stepped up

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Xavier Smith makes a catch as a tight end for East Carolina last season. Smith is now a full-time linebacker and enjoying a steady preseason camp.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD The Daily Reflector

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Here are five East Carolina football players who have stepped up during preseason camp and will be looking to continue their momentum when the Pirates complete camp with a scrimmage Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium:

1. Xavier Smith, linebacker: Smith has kind of quietly morphed from a tight end last year to a full-time linebacker for this season who is on track to start alongside Bruce Bivens as a central part of ECU's defense. Smith is a sophomore with only one career tackle, which coach Mike Houston said is the main thing that could hold him back this year is a lack of experience, but he is 6-foot and 244 pounds and has plenty of physical skills and potential. He was the leading tackler in ECU's first preseason scrimmage.

2. Branden Pena, center: There was some thought with the return of centers John Spellacy and Peyton Winstead from injury during the summer that Pena would get phased out in the fall, but Pena has remained rock-solid as the Pirates' No. 1 center. Pena had to battle injuries in the past with multiple season-ending knee issues, but in the spring he was granted medical hardship and a sixth year of eligibility for this to be his final season. Having a healthy and reliable center is often undervalued and is especially important for the Pirates up front.

3. Demetrius Mauney, running back: Mauney is a freshman from Forest City who is only a few weeks into his practicing with the Pirates, be he wasted no time in receiving some first-team reps during the first couple of days. Junior Darius Pinnix is a bruiser and more experienced and still in position to be ECU's starting running back, but Mauney also has a slippery and physical style that this coaching staff likes and he is certainly in contention to receive early playing time in the backfield.

4. Kendall Futrell, defensive end: The senior Winterville native was the talk of the first week of camp, described by Houston simply as a player who is hard to block and keep away from the quarterback. This is Futrell's final shot to put together a complete and healthy season. In 28 career games, he has five total sacks and one fumble forced.

5. Holton Ahlers, quarterback: There has been some talk about quarterback separation, and it is hard to not look at the three rushing touchdowns and 118 yards on six carries by Ahlers last Saturday. The 6-3, 235-pound left-hander led the Pirates in rushing as a freshman a year ago and he did it again already in a scrimmage. Having Reid Herring available and ready to play is important, but it would be a surprise at this point if Ahlers is not the Pirates' starter and emotional leader to begin the season.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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