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Pena in the center of Pirate line

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East Carolina offensive line players, including No. 54 Branden Pena, run drills during practice on Wednesday.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Plenty of East Carolina football fans were disappointed when defensive standout Nate Harvey was not granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA over the weekend, but offensive lineman Branden Pena did receive a medical hardship waiver, and he already has proven to be valuable during the Pirates’ first week of spring practice.

Pena has been prominent in the rotation at center, where John Spellacy (concussion) and Peyton Winstead (shoulder) both are sidelined. Pena has seen action at multiple positions during his collegiate career, which began at Hartnell (Calif.) College, and he is part of a senior offensive line class that includes Cortez Herrin, Fernando Frye and returning starting left tackle D’Ante Smith.

“There is no doubt that he is an experienced guy at the center position, where there is a lot going on with recognizing the front, making the calls and snapping the ball,” Pirate coach Mike Houston said of Pena, who is 6-foot-2 and 288 pounds and a Salinas, Calif., native. “He has a handle on all of that stuff and has been a definite asset here at the beginning of the spring.”

The Pirates practiced Wednesday in chilly and damp weather. They ended with a goal-line style run drill that had Houston leaving the practice fields feeling better than he did Monday when the team first put on full pads.

“I just thought that guys understood a little bit better the tempo of a practice in pads,” he said. “I thought I saw some guys competing a little bit better and trying to do better with our thud tackling.”

Behind the ECU O-Line is No. 1 quarterback Holton Ahlers and a handful of running backs looking to be the lead ball-carrier. Houston pointed out Darius Pinnix when asked about his team’s run game.

“We are working really hard at it and I’ve been really pleased with how Pinnix is playing vertical, because we have really stressed to him what kind of runner he is and he has embraced that,” Houston said of the 6-foot, 227-pound junior who is one year behind seniors Hussein Howe and walk-on Cam Coleman. “I was really pleased with that today. I feel pretty good about a couple of our offensive linemen right now, that they are going to be just fine.”

Shortly after being hired in December and laying out his spring plans, Houston stressed the importance of addressing and improving offensive line play. He said Wednesday there have been positive signs up front, especially compared to some of the expectations he had prior to last week.

ECU has struggled to produce a consistent run game in recent years, including last season ranking 111th in the nation in rush offense at 129.7 yards per game.

“People talk to you and give you their opinions, and of course, you don’t really know what it is going to be, but I think those guys have worked really hard,” Houston said. “We have a lot of young guys that we are finding a little bit about and using some different lineups each day. Overall, I would say I’m pleased with the offensive line to this point.”

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

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