Some East Carolina freshmen had already proven themselves earlier in the fall, and some got the chance to do so during extended playing time Saturday night in a 48-9 football rout of Gardner-Webb at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
No rookie has made a bigger impact than cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian, who started against N.C. State and Gardner-Webb and snagged the Pirates' first takeaway of the season when he cut in front of a G-W receiver late in the second quarter and caught an interception. It set up a short Holton Ahlers touchdown run for a 31-7 lead.
On offense, freshman running back Demetrius Mauney shined during the fourth quarter to the tune of 107 yards on 13 carries.
"Saturday is when he looked like the guy we saw early in preseason camp that we got so excited about it," Pirate coach Mike Houston said Monday during the American Athletic Conference coaches teleconference. "Demetrius has really good vision and really good feet with the ability to make subtle cuts in the run game. ... I was little surprised he didn't break one (for a touchdown), because certainly he got into the secondary a couple of times."
Receiver and D.H. Conley product C.J. Johnson, who is 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, through two weeks is already established as a key role player for the Pirates (1-1). He caught what looked like his first TD pass on Saturday, a 19-yarder from former Conley teammate Ahlers during the third quarter, but the score was nullified by a Pirate penalty for an illegal lineman downfield.
Graham native Jsi Hatfield is shifty and built much differently from Johnson at 5-9, 174. He was used as a kickoff returner and for the second straight week was involved in quick misdirection plays on offense. Hatfield's jet sweep run of 15 yards highlighted a night that included two rushes and one reception for a total of 41 yards.
He also had a 21-yard kick return.
"He is going to develop into a player, in time, who is going to be pretty dynamic for us," Houston said. "Right now, we are trying to find ways to get him the ball whether it is in the return game or offensively. I was pleased with the way he played Saturday, and everybody kind of saw those flashes that shows his potential."
Hatfield's six receptions are second among all ECU pass-catchers. Johnson has three catches for 24 yards.
Free safety Jireh Wilson filled in for Tank Robinson on Saturday after Robinson was ejected for targeting during the second quarter. Houston said Robinson is eligible to play immediately and start against Navy this week, but the second half for Wilson also proved valuable.
"Tank has to be smarter than that," Houston said of the targeting call. "That's not what we teach and he'll made the adjustments there, but I thought the way Jireh responded and played was really positive. In his first real live action at the college level, he didn't stand out in a negative way at all and made several good plays."
ECU's win over Gardner-Webb gave the Pirates a 12-3 record in their last 15 home-openers.
Mauney's big night against the Bulldogs moved him to second on the Pirates in rushing attempts (15) and yards (104). Senior Hussein Howe, who like Mauney is a reserve to starter Darius Pinnix (32-157), has 17 yards on nine carries.
Navy, which beat Holy Cross 45-7 in Week 1 and then had a bye, was listed Monday as a 7.5-point favorite for the game against the Pirates that will kick off at 3:30 p.m. in Annapolis, Md.
"They probably did not have to show very much off against Holy Cross," Houston said. "We'll see some things Saturday that they haven't shown this year or whatever wrinkles they worked on in the offseason. I'm sure well see that pretty quick on Saturday."
Contact Ronnie Woodward at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.