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In the trenches: Pena a 'tough joker' at center

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East Carolina center Branden Pena (54) and other lineman block for quarterback Holton Ahlers during an East Carolina scrimmage on Aug. 17, 2019.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Monday, August 19, 2019

East Carolina first-year football coach Mike Houston described the Pirates' No. 1 center, Branden Pena, as a "tough joker" on Saturday.

The football-centric praise showed how far the relationship has come between Pena and Houston since December.

"Branden Pena is a guy that I didn't know his name when I took this job," said Houston, who posted a 37-6 record at James Madison from 2016-18 and began with the Pirates on Dec. 3. "I didn't know who he was even when he walked up to me. Now, I would say that he is one of our more consistent offensive linemen."

Pena, a Salinas, Calif., native who transferred to ECU from Hartnell (Calif.) College in 2016, is impressing during a preseason that he knows is part of his final year of college football. The 6-foot-2, 288-pound right-hander faced season-ending knee injuries in 2018 and '17, leading to the NCAA giving him medical hardship this spring for a sixth and final year of eligibility.

He was a freshman at Hartnell in 2014. He redshirted two years later during his first year with the Pirates.

Houston's description of Pena's physical style matched Pena's answer when he was asked if he prefers to block during run plays or passing plays.

"I've always liked to run-block, because I like contact," he said.

Junior John Spellacy has been working as the backup center.

Pena is hoping for a full and healthy season in the middle of a Pirate line that is still working things out on the right side.

Projected starting right guard Sean Bailey has been sidelined lately with an injury and did not play in Saturday's scrimmage. That has pushed Fernando Frye and Jordan Johnson to the forefront.

Bailey Malovic and Matt Morgan have been in heavy rotation with the first-team as one of them is bound to claim the starting right tackle spot.

The O-Line struggled at times Saturday to hold back the Pirates' pass rush. ECU's defense finished with six sacks and three interceptions.

"Alex Turner is the one who jumps out on defense," Houston said during media day Saturday when asked about specific players who have embraced his push for maximum effort, intensity and physicality. "I think the (top) two inside linebackers have had a really solid camp too in Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens. Those guys really jump out."

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

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